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Business Q&A: Alistair Cummins-MacLeod from East Durham College

Jun 14, 2021 | Business

Alistair Cummins-MacLeod is the Marketing Director at East Durham College, which has two sites in Peterlee and Houghall on the outskirts of Durham.

In an interview for East Durham Business magazine, Alistair tells us more about his diverse marketing and communications role, including the launch of an exciting new WhatsApp service which will transform the way the college communicates with full time applicants.

EDB: Tell us more about your job at East Durham College?

ACM: I joined East Durham College in 2009, as Marketing Manager, having worked for a number of large marketing agencies, in Leeds and Middlesbrough, for clients such as Capital One, P&O Ferries, One North East and Tees Valley Airport. I then became Director of Marketing in 2011 and in 2017 the Director of Student Engagement, Experience & Wellbeing with managerial responsibility for the marketing comms team, school liaison team, admissions, student finance, student services team, the careers advisors, student liaison and students’ union, counselling, reception and the college’s childcare nursery.

My role’s main purpose is to help enhance the college’s reputation and help ensure we deliver the highest quality student experience across a multitude of aspects of the student journey – from first enquiry, application and enrolment through to supporting students during their time with us and fully preparing them for their next positive step after EDC.

EDB: It sounds like an interesting role. What’s a typical day for you?

ACM: That’s what I love about this job, pretty much no two days are the same! Apart from attending a range of regular meetings, the days are incredibly varied.

Marketing is still a massive focus of my day-to-day role, be that working with the internal marketing team on planning social media advertising or working with a range of external agencies and suppliers on graphic design, branding, print, signage, offline media, SEO, Google Adwords, web development and so on. We recently partnered with an exciting new supplier who will provide a new WhatsApp service that will help us to better communicate with full time applicants during their application process and first six weeks at college, which should be a game changer for us in terms of helping to identify applicants ‘at risk’ of not converting to enrolment and any issues they may be experiencing once they have started at college which may affect retention in those first critical weeks.

Careers guidance and related activities have also become really high profile in Further Education, following the government’s careers strategy and adoption of the Gatsby benchmarks, so a typical day inevitably includes elements of this side of the role – be that attending a strategic careers meeting with the NELEP or helping the team to review how we support our students with their UCAS applications.

I’m also a bit of a caffeine addict, so my typical day always involves about seven mugs of strong black coffee!

EDB: What elements of the job do you like best and find the most challenging?

ACM: It has to be all things marketing. Having worked for ad agencies and a really wide range of clients, across a number of business sectors, I was initially worried that I wouldn’t get the variety of marketing work at the college. How wrong I was. Further education is constantly evolving, so there are always new marketing-related projects to get my teeth into – whether it was the branding and successful launch of our sixth form (ED6) in 2012 or most recently working in collaboration with a range of FE and business partners on the launch and marketing of the new North East Institute of Technology.

Internal branding is also a pet project of mine; I absolutely love developing new wall graphics and signage around campus to enhance the look and feel of the college environment.

EDB: The college has built up a formidable reputation for nurturing future talent and marketing is obviously a key ingredient in that success.

ACM: Absolutely! The college, like many former technical colleges, has had to overcome the ‘stigma’ of not necessarily being the destination of choice for the more naturally academic student, who tended to favour the A-level route, often at their school sixth form or standalone sixth form. Although we of course promote and run an extremely successful A-level provision, we have also done a tremendous amount of work to raise the profile of vocational training whether that be at our main Peterlee Campus, The Technical Academy or our land-based provision at Houghall in Durham. Former EDC student success provides a powerful tool in helping us to build our reputation through the use of PR, social media, video, the website, the prospectus and even on the walls at college.

EDB: How has the coronavirus pandemic changed the way you communicate internally and externally? ACM: Initially, the pandemic generated an explosion of internal communication as new ways of working needed to be established in a very short space of time. Thankfully, that has reduced as we adapted and put systems in place. Fortunately, the majority of our marketing was focused on digital so there was less of an impact than there might have been – although the ability to promote the college face-to-face in schools has been on pause since last March which was a concern as it’s a key strength in our student recruitment. However, applications are looking strong and we are very positive about our 2021/22 intake.

EDB: The pandemic has been tough for businesses with many changing the way they operate to survive. Has that had a knock-on effect for the college and student?

ACM: The college actually had a fantastic full time enrolment in September 2020, well above target and well above the natural growth in the 16-year-old demographic in our catchment area. Our Access to Higher Education provision also experienced significant growth; particularly in the nursing and midwifery pathway which more than doubled on the previous year. We have also been relieved to see our apprenticeship numbers holding up during this academic year, with the employers we partner with working extremely hard to keep and start new apprentices despite the pressures of lockdown. FE is going to be a central focus of the government’s strategy to aid the recovery, as was evident in the recent FE white paper – Skills for Jobs for Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth – as people need to retraining and upskill.

In terms of the student experience Covid has, of course, been massive. We were able to run almost as normal during term 1 of this academic year providing the majority of teaching and learning face-to-face. Term 2 has been more of a challenge in that regard and it was wonderful to be able to return to extensive face-to-face teaching from March 8. It’s clear to see that the students enjoy being in college and particularly being able to get back to developing their practical skills.

EDB: What are the priority areas for the college over the coming months?

ACM: In addition to establishing the offer and reputation of the new North East Institute of Technology, the college will start running the new T-levels from September 2022 so the planning of the marketing of those is getting underway. The Students’ Union elections will start after Easter, so it will be great to see those get underway and students getting involved with helping to provide direction on how we can make their experience at EDC the very best it can be.