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

Enrolment is always a challenge. We come back from our holidays to an empty college. Like someone organising an open house, we’ve stocked up on a range of snacks and drinks for our guests but we can’t really be sure that anyone will actually turn up. It’s conceivable that every single person who said they would come will find something better to do. We start with no students and we have to enrol every single one before we can start doing our job and actually teach them.

Ideally, of course, our future students are already out there, having made their minds up ages ago after visiting, given much though to their application, attended an in-depth interview, been well advised and made a well-considered choice. They turn up with the results they expected and enrol on the course they said they wanted. Everything goes swimmingly and before you know it the party is a big success.

We start by assuming that most students will do things the way we want them to: planning, visiting, taking advice and deciding in good time. And many students are indeed organised, focused and decisive.

However, enrolment is also about dealing with the ‘walk-ins’, the desperate, the indecisive, the new arrivals and the hard-to-place; all of whom deserve the best educational opportunities we can offer.

Enrolment reminds us that sound educational advice is actually not the norm in all schools and that young people’s lives can be blighted by poor guidance and a lack of information. For some, this is a time of exciting new challenges and vistas and wonderful opportunities. For others it can be a time of family tension, where hopes and aspirations are dashed by the reality of exam results, where one has to ‘settle’ for ‘second best’ or make difficult choices between what seem like a rock and a hard place. The sense of doors closing and future prospects narrowing can reinforce a young person’s sense of failure and rejection.

Still, for all its downsides, enrolment has one big upside; it’s when we get to meet the wonderful young people we’re going to be working with all year. Their ambition, hope and dynamism keep us going and remind us why we love the job.

The rhetoric of post-16 market choice paints the student as a well-informed discerning consumer, choosing between a range of different providers. However, in our hyper-market the student is often the commodity with the providers acting as consumers vying to pick the ‘best’ students. In such a market, the ‘premium’ student has already demonstrated high achievement; the clearest sign that they will help the institution do well. The ‘remaindered’ student is worth much less; they’ve had a false start, failed to show enough promise and will probably generate a lot of work for little return. Nearly as risky is the ‘discount’ student who is threatening to turn 18 during their course or may even already be past their sell-by date, incurring the 17.5% ‘aspiration tax’.

Under these circumstances it’s hardly surprising that the raising of the participation age hasn’t delivered on its promise of appropriate provision for all 16-18 year olds. In effect, the market means that the most sought-after students are often over-provided for while the others take their chances.

This is a crazy way to do things. Post-16 providers are encouraged to think as competitive agents who fight to attract students while also being prepared to spit some of them out on the way with little regard for what happens to them next. What we need is an inclusive tertiary education system which takes responsibility for providing for every young person aged 16-18 in a locality. This requires some local planning with an expectation that institutions collaborate and see themselves as parts of a single system acting in the interests of all young people.

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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