Market madness #1 Oversubscribed?

A series of short posts about the marketisation of public education: #1 Oversubscribed?

“6 applicants for every place”…”heavily oversubscribed”. These sorts of claims are often used to establish how popular, and by implication successful, schools and colleges are. They should be taken with a heavy dose of salt.

Being able to measure demand is very important in a market system. Many providers want to show that what they offer has some scarcity value; that more people want it than can actually get it. Saying “we are oversubscribed” is a neat shorthand way of letting punters know the scarcity value of the commodity you’re offering.

But choosing a school or college is generally a single-outcome decision; each consumer will only choose one at a time. Both the school application system and the post-16 free-for-all allow for multiple applications. Consumers make several applications but will ultimately choose only one. So a high number of applications is a very inadequate measure of demand. Only the final number of students actually enrolling is a true indication of choices made. Schools and colleges have target numbers and each either does or doesn’t achieve this.

Our college has always had more applicants than places and has therefore always been “oversubscribed”. This is not because we are selective but because we understand that many make multiple applications. In a competitive environment with new post-16 providers opening up every year, this will intensify, so what matters is the proportion of applicants who actually enrol; the conversion rate.

Selective post-16 providers have no problem turning people away as they think it contributes to an impression of success. Comprehensive post-16 providers operating in a market have to understand the dynamic of that market if they want to plan to be full without wishing to turn students away. Quite a challenge!

All the Market Madness posts:

Market madness #1 Oversubscribed?

Market madness #2 “Choice and diversity”

Market madness #3 The well-informed educational consumer

Market madness #4 A good system can help schools improve

Market madness #5 Qualifications as currency

Market madness #6 Students as commodities: premium, discount and remaindered

Market madness #7 What markets do to us

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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