Market madness #3 The well-informed educational consumer

A series of short posts about the marketisation of public education: #3 The well-informed educational consumer.

An ideal market requires well informed consumers who are in a position to make choices between products based on accurate information about the things that matter to them; for example quality and price.

If public services like education are really to operate in a market, consumers – whether parents or students – need to be well informed about the alternatives available before they exercise their choice. It is after all a very important choice with longer term consequences that most consumer purchases.

This means having access to good information, advice and guidance from disinterested and well informed experts. It means trusting and understanding the data in league tables, their value and limitations. It also means being able to evaluate a wide range of other ‘objective’ published data and statistical claims.

In reality, the market in education as in other areas is far from perfect and it tends to reinforce the prior advantages of some consumers. Providers with good reputations will tend to attract the kinds of students who are most likely to further enhance their attractiveness in an upward spiral of positive feedback. Other providers can easily fall into a downward spiral.

In post-16 education, it is widely known that many secondary schools with sixth forms work hard to ensure that their most promising students ‘stay on’ at 16 and as a result such schools fall short of the ideal of providing independent advice and guidance about the full range of options open to their students. They often cannot resist describing these options in their own words rather than allowing alternative providers to do so themselves. These tendencies are a natural product of the market system and all its various incentives and pressures.

On top of this, markets lead to marketing. Glossy brochures, prospectuses, press releases and advertising campaigns boosted via social media are now key elements of many providers’ strategy. They aim to boost recruitment and manage reputation and are seen as essential for survival. Besides, if everyone else around us is doing it how can we avoid doing it?

I enjoy celebrating educational achievement, so I like to see the benefits of learning promoted in the public sphere and I applaud the best and most imaginative campaigns of colleges and universities. I am of course delighted when I see the giant images of our successful former students smiling at me from so many buses driving around East London’s streets. However, all this has cost us a pretty penny and at a time of spending cuts, I can’t help thinking about what else we could have spent this money on.

I am always impressed by the way that the French election authorities give equal national billboard space to each presidential candidate however small their party or poorly funded their campaign; the argument is that the state should underwrite some parity of exposure if citizens are to have a real choice in the democratic ‘marketplace’. Perhaps a similar level playing field might be possible for educational marketing here?

At the moment it seems that in the Hobbesian “war of all against all” where every educational provider is clamouring for attention and favour in the marketplace there is no way of stopping us all from spending public money on campaigns which portray us in the best light and which tell our best story.  Let’s just hope that we all have enough integrity to ensure that the stories we tell are reasonably accurate and that our consumers aren’t too disappointed when they have a chance to test the reality against the rhetoric.

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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