Monday, 1 September 2014

Academic dinosaurs?

A strand of the public discourse around higher education, since the coalition’s funding reforms in 2010, has been about how alternative providers (ie the private sector) will enter the market, compete with established universities and force those ‘academic dinosaurs’ to improve their offer to students, to compete on successful terms.

Two friendly academic dinosaurs

Now no doubt there is a market – you can see some evidence for this in the UCAS data – but I’m not sure that it’s as simple as the ‘more competition = better all round” narrative might have you believe.

Markets are segmented. There are different types of customer; and different types of supplier. This is true for all markets; and hence true for higher education.  Higher education differs in that price is not only about money, but also about entry tariff: you aren’t able to go to some universities unless you have the right qualifications.

On the supplier side (and for simplicity let’s focus on undergraduates only here), you have differentiation by

  • length of study (accelerated degrees versus ‘traditional’ degrees; foundation years; part-time study)
  • range of subjects (specialist institutions versus multi-faculty)
  • mode of study (distance learning versus campus based; daytime versus evening)
  • focus on teaching versus focus on research
  • qualifications needed to gain entry
  • price
  • location (near home; another city; a rural location; a different nation)

On the ‘customer’ side, you have differentiation around:

  • Price sensitivity (in relation to living costs; total fees; willingness to commit time)
  • Confidence (in their own ability)
  • Focus (are they looking for ‘the student experience’ or for a qualification?)
  • Willingness or ability to travel to university
  • Instrumentality (that is, are they focused on the career options open to them, or looking only at the educational aspects)
  • Flexibility (that is, how flexible a university must be in the facilities and options it offers the student: think childcare on campus; 24/7 library opening)

This isn’t a simple marketplace. It also strikes me that the alternative providers are seeking out particular niches – a particular subject or a rigorous focus on the learner – and that only one private provider – the University of Buckingham – seeks to play on level terms with other universities.  Not a surprise, but also not a revolution.

My prediction (and it is just that! no value judgments are made here!) would be that private providers will compete mostly with some of the newer universities: attracting students with less familiarity with higher education; focusing on the learner; offering flexible study.  The older universities will continue to be popular with students who have familial experience of university, and for whom ‘going to university’ has been part of their life plan since before they knew it, in short, who come from ‘traditional’ backgrounds..

If this is right, the effects of competition won’t be on the sector as a whole, but on a subset of existing institutions only. And not, noticeably, on those institutions with a strong focus on research, which I’ve heard as a particular bugbear of the alternative providers (why subsidize research with fees? they ask).

Back to the dinosaur metaphor, this is consistent with what know – evolution is a slow process, impacting on particular ecosystems and subspecies; changing a food chain here and there; but passing almost unnoticed from one generation to the next. In the absence of a metaphorical meteorite hitting the UK university sector, the dinosaurs may be successful for some time yet.

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