We’ve probably all read stories or seen films where a character goes through a door that they think leads to nowhere in particular, only to be startled to find themselves standing in a new and vast space that they never imagined existed. Economic Impact Studies can be a bit like this. On the surface, they can tend to look merely like a convenient means for quantifying the economic value of an institution and nothing much besides. However, dig a bit deeper and you find that there is a whole lot more to them than this. They are not just a few numbers on a page. They are not just a headline figure or two to be looked at approvingly and then filed away. Rather, with a bit of imagination they are a strategic gateway which can lead you to a number of new pathways: marketing, awareness, changing public perception, branding, bid-writing, planning applications, fundraising, employer engagement, LEP discussions, curriculum planning, plus a whole lot more.
Exploring the uses of Economic Impact Studies (EIS) was the theme of the EIS Best Practice User Group event we held last Thursday at the Radisson Blu Portman Hotel in London. The venue was ideal, the food was great, and the special effects – a sudden thunder storm after lunch in which London’s tallest building, the Shard, was struck by lightning – were spectacular. But above all, the event was a success because a good number of delegates from colleges across the country turned up to hear a variety of presentations and case studies, followed by some helpful discussions as to how the EIS can be used as an integral part of a college’s strategy.
One of the major uses of the EIS is in supporting external bids. This was the theme of our first address, given by EMSI’s Anthony Horne. Citing the examples of Middlesbrough College and East Durham College, Anthony showed how they have used the results of their EIS to support new ventures.
In the case of Middlesbrough, the EIS was used as part of their attempts to get funding to build a £20million STEM Centre. One of the many facets of an EIS is to quantify the benefits of a college’s provision to local business, and this aspect very much helped the college to gain the support of local employers for the project by showing them how the education provided by the college benefits them.
In the case of East Durham, the EIS was used in submitting planning applications for new college buildings. Again, like Middlesbrough, the fact that the college was able to quantify their value was enormously helpful, allowing them to show clearly the benefits of the proposed project to the local community, both in planning committees with the County Council and in a bid for £10 million worth of funds from the SFA.
Making a Difference to Learners
Although the economic impact of a college is by no means the be-all-and-end-all of what a college is all about, it is a great measure, according to Kate Webb, Principal of East Berkshire College. Kate explained how this was especially important in a college like East Berkshire where a significant number of students come from deprived areas. Amongst the many other uses of the EIS, it can be used to show just how much difference the college can make to the community, and how much of an impact it can have on people’s lives. Rightly used, it can therefore play a huge part of a college’s wider mission for promoting social capital, mobility and inclusion, by showing people the benefits they might derive from a college education.
There were a variety of suggestions made throughout the day as to how the EIS can be used in college marketing. Louise Tearle, representing the West Yorkshire Consortium of Colleges, spoke about some of the methods they had used to publicise the aggregate study of the seven colleges in the group. Our research found that together the seven colleges contribute a massive £1.8billion to the regional economy. This figure is clearly worthy of publicity, and according to Louise this was done in the following ways:
– Good press in various local papers
– A dedicated website showcasing the impact results
– Leading a breakout session at AoC
– LEP and employer engagement
– A parliamentary dinner attended by principals and a cross-party group of MPs
Some other marketing methods were suggested to the audience by one of our US economists, Anna Brown, using examples from American colleges. For example:
– Monroe Community College published a customised factsheet which they used for marketing, fundraising and for raising awareness of the college’s role in meeting the needs of the local economy
– Fayetteville Technical Community College issued press releases, held a press conference, and also posted the results online. The result of this was more local awareness of how the college plays a prominent role as economic driver in region
– For North Dakota State University, the results were published in various local journals, but they also led to the university getting in front of state legislature. The EIS created a situation where legislators actually wanted information from the institution, and this resulted in additional funding and better decisions about the university’s role in local economy
– An aggregate study in Nebraska has been promoted in a number of different ways by the colleges involved, including radio, mailers, presidential forums, brochures, print adverts and press releases
Proving the Worth of the FE Sector
It is clearly something of a sore point within the FE sector that despite the hard work of principals, staff and learners, the media and public perception of them remains, on the whole, fairly negative. This theme was picked up by Christine Doubleday, Deputy Executive Director of the 157 Group, who spoke of the need of the sector to prove its worth. Although reiterating Kate Webb’s comment that further education is about much more than economic impact, Christine was at pains to point out that the sector was in great need of “stopping silly comments about hairdressers,” and that the EIS, by quantifying the massive value that colleges do give to their community, represents a huge opportunity to dispel some of the false notions about the sector.
Christine was clearly genuinely excited that there is now a well-researched and credible method for proving the value of the sector, so that colleges can “gain their place at the table” with with LEPs, employers and other decision makers on an equal footing. The great worth of the EIS, according to Christine, is that it proves how crucial the Further Education sector is to the economy and that it cannot be ignored. This has recently been proved in the US, where a nationwide study, carried out on behalf of the American Association of Community Colleges, found that the sector as a whole adds $809 billion to the US economy every year. That kind of figure – 5.4% of US GDP – clearly means that the sector cannot be lightly dismissed. Time for a similar study in this country perhaps?
One of the subjects that comes up time and time again in relation to the EIS is that of benchmarking: “How does my college compare to other colleges”. Another of our US economists, Aaron Olanie, addressed this subject. Highlighting the difficulties involved in benchmarking, Aaron explained that although EMSI is looking into the issue, one route we definitely won’t be taking is the “How does institution A compare to institution B” approach. The reason for this is that comparing colleges is rarely a case of comparing “apples to apples”. A college in the Home Counties, for example, faces a vastly different set of circumstances and conditions than an inner city college. In terms of raw numbers, it could well be the case that a mediocre college in the Home Counties could come out above an excellent inner city college, so doing a straight comparison of the two really wouldn’t do anyone any favours.
Having said this, Aaron told the audience that we are taking the whole issue of benchmarking seriously, and whilst trying to avoid the rather crass and misleading approach of comparing all colleges across the board, we are looking to bring in some way of allowing colleges with certain circumstances to see how they are doing when compared to colleges with similar conditions. Watch this space…
As noted at the beginning, the EIS is essentially a door leading to a whole range of uses and applications. But the uses and applications of an EIS go well beyond using and applying the figures from the EIS itself. Imagine an athlete who begins his season’s training by recording his time. Why would he do this? In order that he can congratulate himself on his time and tell everyone about it? He might very well be proud of his achievement, but the real reason he does this is to give himself a starting point – a benchmark that he can then use to chart his improvement throughout the rest of the season. The same should be true of colleges that undertake an EIS. The purpose should not be just to get the figures and then use them to raise awareness about how well the college is doing, although as stated above, that is a worthy exercise. But like the athlete, colleges need to be using their EIS figures as a benchmark for future improvement.
This was essentially the gist of the message given by our VP for UK Operations, Andy Durman. According to Andy, an EIS represents a solid baseline, but this is only the beginning of the narrative. The next step after finding out what impact the college is having on its community is to then look at how it can improve this impact, which will include things like reviewing the local labour market and better aligning the college curriculum with it. Taking this approach will enable a college to:
– Upskill displaced employees
– Showcase course alignment of courses to local employment
– Help reduce unemployment
– Upskill current workforce
Opening up New Pathways
Economic Impact Studies are a good thing in and of themselves. Quantifying the value that a college gives to the community, to learners, to businesses and to taxpayers is always going to be an enormously useful exercise. But just like the door in the novel or the film which takes the character into new and exciting places, the EIS should not be seen as an end in itself. Rather, with a little creativity and imagination, it becomes a gateway to a host of new and innovative pathways to promote the college and to shape its future strategic direction. Commissioning an Impact Study may very well lead a college into places it hadn’t previously considered. Yet as the case studies, presentations and discussions at our User Group demonstrated, it is a journey well worth embarking on.