The age of the college merger

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Ed Gould

Ed Gould

Creative director

Published Tuesday 23rd October 2018

Artworking + Branding + Design

Carswell Gould has been working in the education industry for 25 years allowing us to experience, at the very forefront, the world of colleges changing exponentially, particularly since 2015 when the Department for Education began its restructure of the post-16 education and training sectors. The national Area-Based process required every college to consider its future with the result being to arrive at ‘fewer, larger more resilient and efficient colleges’.

There are currently 269 further education and sixth form colleges in England. This compares to almost 450 when colleges were incorporated in 1993. In the last year we have seen nine mergers take place and there are a further 13 planned for 2018/19.

Such a dynamic FE market does provide the opportunity for colleges to learn from the early adopters, resulting in a smoother pathway through the planning and communication process for a merger. However, care does need to be taken at each stage of the process, to avoid the pitfalls some have experienced. We have learned to succeed in running a positive, efficient merger depends heavily on two core activities - planning and communication.

Working in the FE education sector, Carswell Gould has seen the good, the bad and the ugly in terms of communications and branding merger management. The merger environment is one in which we have played a particularly active part. This dynamic marketplace is throwing out new and interesting challenges that can create major issues for Principals and Boards during and after the merger process.

Here are some of the top issues and opportunities we see:

Underestimating the complexity of the change management required

A merger sets tongues wagging in your organisation - many people including those within your leadership group and board will have fears and doubts. Those that do best take a people focused leadership approach, meaning they consider the impact from every angle.

Top tip: Persona work to frame issues and opportunities for all your key stakeholders and influencers.


Involve them to evolve them
In line with the above, to take people with you they need to be on board from the start. Too often planners simply tick the boxes and don't go further to involve staff, students, partners and wider stakeholders. Go the extra mile and avoid dissent by putting decision-making power of certain elements of the process, in their hands.

Top tip: Engagement workshops on site are a great way to tell the story of the merger and involve people in a genuine way. We find having champions all the way through organisations makes a better brand. It also sets out your stall as a leader, wanting to involve and communicate with all staff, kicking communication off positively (both internal comms and external).


What's in a name?
Many mergers will include new names for colleges and newly formed groups. This is often the most over considered part of the process from the point for view of the leadership team and can create issues between two parties. In instances where we have run a full brand process and the decision, or part of the decision, is taken away from the merging entities, results tend to be better.

There have been more than 50 name changes in the last 20 years and there are some reasonably well-tested procedures which involve taking the views of neighbouring institutions (colleges, schools and universities) and consultation with councils and MPs.


Top tip: Use an outside team to run a naming process to help generate the right name for the new entity rather than sit round a table for hours coming up with suggestions


Technology will bite you, so map it early
Understanding technology-mapping is a key ingredient to a successful merger. We do this by bringing together IT, web, marketing, enrolment and leadership teams and running a process to create a map of technology stack. It allows understanding of how and when things will change, thus reducing the impact of change and making the most of the assets you have.

Top tip: Involve IT early and create a full map of tech stack - massive savings are possible here but it's critical to understand where you are going and then create a deliverable project plan.


Perception is everything, especially when it comes to the money
The views of students, parents, employers, staff, MPs and councils all matter and, as other tips here state, you need to take steps to involve them in the process. However, many forget that funding agencies, banks and LEPs may have financial stakes, which give them the ability to delay or prevent a merger taking place. Take steps to involve them at an early stage and work with them to ensure confidence.


Merger documents
There used to be a standard merger process organised by the national funding agency (FEFC then LSC) involving a consultation document following a standard format and a ‘white file’ presented to the Minister for final approval. Colleges now have more choice over how they conduct their merger, but still need to follow a timetable with a number of stages.

Top tip: Check out the great content from the Association of Colleges.


Teamwork makes the dream work
As a leader you need to pull and keep together an engaged and effective steering group. It is important to get the right mix of people involved, who understand why you are carrying out the process, know ‘how we are doing it’ inside out and can inject ideas and offer solutions. You may also consider the value of expert support from outside your organisation. You should pick people who already have the experience and will offer you value in your process, whatever the task may be. Bring them in to your team to plan an objective, strategy and delivery function that adds value to the process.

Top tip: We specialise in merger communications, but we have seen that leaders that involve us from the start get more value from us, and other advisors’, input. It means we can effect things from the get-go and share a broader accountability for the whole process.


The devil is in the detail - make sure your policies are bulletproof
Your checklist of must do’s is a must do for a reason. We have witnessed a number of projects where basic detail has failed to be adhered to. Your project manager must carefully manage those and keep policies updated inline with your deadlines. Colleges also work within an increasingly challenging environment and when it comes to mergers need to deal with a complex web of laws, rules and contracts. A typical college merger might easily require the leadership to update more than 100 policies and processes.

Top tip: Use project management software to manage key dates.


Be realistic about outcomes, likely costs and savings, and time needed
This takes time so when you are planning, use people that have been there and done that to give you a reality check on your project plans and timings. They can also give you a realistic view of potential savings. We find that most of the focus during the lead-up to a merger is just ‘getting through it’. We try to frame the importance of looking past the ‘must do tasks’ to consider how will it play out and what we can realistically promise to the team and students from the start.

Top tip: Create a mission plan and review it every three months. Ensure your plan has pre, during and post merger sections.


Monitor and evaluate benefits and measures of success
Part of our merger communication work is to listen. We listen to how things are going in the groups, the media and stakeholders. We do this in order to flag where issues may arise and where action is needed. The rest of the merger process is the same. Monitor it and keep track of what is happening.

Top tip: We use software that listens to the sentiment of online chatter, workshops to listen to staff and media monitoring services to pick up on media - it all helps you keep abreast of the perfections of your merger.


About Carswell Gould
Carswell Gould is a creative communications agency which, for the last 25 years, has worked at all levels within the education sector. Over the last few years, we have been the ‘go to’ partner for merger FE (Further Education) colleges and involved with multiple projects across the UK. Our involvement ranges from full merger communication management services for board and principals, through to helping marketing teams understand and deliver the reviewed stakeholder management required at this key time.

For more information contact Gareth Miller at Carswell Gould or fill in your details below and we'll be in touch shortly.

Further reading on the subject
This article takes reference from a number of document by the Association of Colleges whose website you can find here -

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