Five strategic questions for FE Colleges to ask ahead of merger
First and foremost, further education colleges (which mostly serve learners aged 16-18) need students and so a merged college needs a brand that is memorable and attractive. Existing students need to welcome and identify with the new identity, but it is also vitally important to reach new audiences and attract students who would not have previously considered the college as an option.
A merged college should, by its nature, be bigger and better and able to make a wider offering. But it is important not to take this for granted, and presume that bigger will be more appealing. Grain recommends that colleges undertake a strategic assessment of their offering, assessing the competition in the immediate and wider geographic areas where courses are in direct competition.
When Grain carries out such strategic assessments, we draw up a positioning chart that clearly highlights over-crowded parts of the marketplace as well as any potential gaps to exploit.
2. Can we carry on using the existing names and brands?
The simplest of things – including the new name and identity of the merged college – can be the hardest to resolve, according to the Association of Colleges.
Some colleges have merged whilst preserving the original college names and identities. But a successful merger requires a strong focus and commitment to the culture of the new organisation that will be difficult to achieve without a combined communications offering.
That is not to say that everything needs to be uniform, but there needs to be a clear strategy of what will be combined and what will be kept separate. A new name can also build on the familiarity of the old.
For example, when a group of local colleges came together in southeast London, Grain came up with a naming architecture that created an overarching name – London South East Colleges – and gave each member college its own identity and name within that, for example London South East Colleges, Bromley; London South East Colleges, Bexley; London South East Colleges, Orpington and so forth.
The reasons for the merger will also influence the naming decision. For example, if it is a rescue deal where a struggling college is ‘saved’, it is likely that the name of the ‘saviour’ college will dominate, whereas a completely new name is often required when the merger is a strategic amalgamation of two equally successful colleges.
When trying to create a new name, we recommend turning to naming experts like ourselves, to ensure that domain names are available and there are no trademarking issues which may result in legal problems further down the line.
3. How do we communicate about the merger?
There needs to be a clear communication strategy which engages all the stakeholders in the college, including students, parents, staff, councils and any organisations offering financial backing.
Internal and external communications should be approached separately.
Internally, there needs to be clear vision laid out of the benefits of the merger. Any difficulties should be acknowledged rather than swept under the carpet, and the consequences of not merging may also be explored without being alarmist.
Communication should clearly state the reasons behind the merger, as well as the type of merger envisaged. It is also important to address upfront any expected questions or challenges, for example technology, legal issues or implications for staff and students.
Externally, the new name, brand and competitive offering should form the central tenet of the communications strategy, with all parties agreeing on these key ideas ahead of external communications.
News of the forthcoming merger will, of course, be in the public domain before all these stages of the process are complete. But ideally, the strategic assessment and naming process, as well as the creation of a new identity, should be completed before the start of any detailed external communications, publicity campaign or recruitment drive.
4. What happens if there is a spanner in the works and the merger ends up being delayed?
Unfortunately, even with the best will – and management team – in the world, unexpected factors may crop up which could result in a merger being delayed.
While this can be very frustrating, it is important to continue communicating about the forthcoming merger in an upbeat and enthusiastic tone of voice.
Internally, it is important to be forthcoming about the delays, why they have occurred and how they will be overcome.
Whilst resolving these issues, it is extremely important that management does not become so distracted that other key issues are neglected, for example student welfare, the quality of courses being offered and staff retention.
5. How can the merger become a force for positive change rather than a necessary evil?
Change is always daunting, especially for long-standing staff or people who have known and been associated with the college for many years. These worries and fears should be acknowledged and addressed rather than ignored or left to fester. Existing and prospective students and their parents may also be worrying about the implications of change.
The key to overcoming fear is clear and honest communication. There should be open forums where staff and students and any other stakeholders are able to express their concerns. If the answers to their questions are not known, it is best to acknowledge this, and promise to go away and find the answer. If possible, the senior leadership team should offer an open door policy throughout the merger process. This may also turn out to be beneficial for the SLT, as staff can sometimes turn up issues that can otherwise be overlooked.
The management team sets the tone of voice and attitude for the wider workforce. Whilst listening and caring about people’s real concerns, the management’s enthusiasm, dedication and positivity towards the planned merger will ultimately be the biggest factor in helping others to embrace change.