How colleges can adopt a business model that will meet students' needs

Jon Cole, Chief Digital and Information Officer at Morley College, explains how colleges can adopt a business model that will meet students’ needs – whether they are on the pathway to a higher education qualification or want to take the next step in their chosen careers.

Adult education colleges can offer students a great opportunity to change careers or advance their existing qualifications and skills.

A college like ours, which has been educating local people for more than a century, sits at the heart of the community. Our learners come to us to fulfil a variety of goals both personal and professional – they may want to get on the ladder of a career in fashion or business, learn Mandarin, try their hand at flamenco dancing or all of the above.

Adult education institutions are increasingly becoming an important resource for employers looking for people with the right sets of skills to help them compete in a rapidly evolving marketplace. And for our college, adopting some of the approaches that succeed in the world of business is one way to stay ahead.

Time to go digital

A college which offers a wide range of courses needs to make sure it is matching the right students with the right programmes, and to make this happen, colleges – like businesses – need a clear digital agenda.

We are all accustomed to shopping, banking and booking our holidays online, so offering students the option to apply for courses online has become the norm.

But with the right technology, colleges can maximise the potential of this approach by moving the whole enrolment process online. At Morley, the enrolment period opens early – typically bookings begin in May or June for courses that start in September, giving students the breathing space to make their study decisions.

With more time built in to the enrolment process, we can plan ahead, knowing much earlier which courses will be full and which have vacancies so that we can make informed decisions about where to target our marketing activity. It’s a good way to boost student satisfaction too, as the risk of last-minute cancellations or changes of plan is virtually eliminated.

But an online enrolment process also enables us to help students select courses that are right for them.

Finding the right fit

Finding the right course can be a complex undertaking, particularly for students seeking specific workplace skills or higher-level qualifications. When applying for more advanced courses, students may be required to gather and submit detailed information, such as previous qualifications, work experience and reasons for applying.

Occasionally, these students will start an application but not complete it because they are gathering information or considering funding options, for example. When a college can see that an application is unfinished, it provides an opportunity to contact the student, answer any questions they might have about the course and help them to enrol should they decide to proceed.

It’s rather like those times when you put an item into an online shopping basket without buying it, then an email from the retailer asking if they can help prompts you to get answers to any questions you might have before you make your purchase.

Using the latest technology, it is possible for institutions to identify ‘dumped carts’ in their online application system and offer help to students in completing their applications – we use our UNIT-e management information system from to flag these incidences. The system enables us to identify the exact stage the student exits the application process as well as what courses they were enrolling on. We can then follow them up by talking to the student and offering advice, so that they find, and apply for, the course they want to study.

In our case, helping students with unfinished applications has been particularly successful for people interested in Level 3 and access to higher education courses. In 2016/2017, £80K of fee income was generated by guiding students towards the right courses in this way.

Targeted promotions

In the retail sector, both online and at the tills, we are used to seeing a raft of inventive promotions designed to encourage us to consider their products. But could these types of promotion work equally well for an education institution? I think there is an untapped opportunity here.

The best promotions are those which are carefully targeted to their audience. In our experience, when technology is used to ensure marketing activity is relevant and personalised to individuals and groups, this is welcomed by students.

For instance, if a student has previously enrolled on one of our courses, we might offer them a voucher code which they can use to obtain a discount if they enrol on the next stage of the course.

There is plenty more scope for innovation here too. Institutions could consider creating multi-buy options, where a student can book two courses and get the third at half price. Or buy one, get one free. How about a ‘recommended for you’ email, to suggest that a student who previously enrolled on a Level 3 leadership and management course may like to further their studies with a higher national diploma in business?

Personalised promotions are an effective way to help students who wish to advance their qualifications and skills find the courses that are right for them – we’ve found that to be the case, as around 50% of our students come back to us.

The time is right for education institutions to embrace good business practice in order to match students with courses, provide employers with skilled people and help learners in the community to reach for and achieve their career goals.