Information for Prospective Students

The current narrative about higher education is that we need to provide more information, to students, prospective students, government and other stakeholders. A central plank of 2011 White Paper was that comparable data would be made readily available:

Each university will now make the most requested items available on its website, on an easily comparable basis. These items, together with information about course charges, are called the Key Information Set (KIS) and will be available on a course by course basis, by September 2012,although many of the items of information are already being made available prior to their incorporation in the KIS.

And so we embarked on the work of editing and checking the data to go into KIS, and duly inserted course widgets on website pages. Cue howls of despair, as people started to realise this opened up a few problems. How did some universities honestly say they were teaching that many hours per week? How come the student survey data was not at award level but potentially misleadingly at JACS3? And the same for employability data? Why did the average contact hours drop if you included a placement year?

Anyway, a new report commissioned by HEFCE and reported in this week’s Times Higher, seems to show making lots of information available is not necessarily working. The key findings of the report show:

The decision-making process is complex, personal and nuanced, involving different types of information, messengers and influences over a long time. This challenges the common assumption that people primarily make objective choices following a systematic analysis of all the information available to them at one time.

Greater amounts of information do not necessarily mean that people will be better informed or be able to make better decisions.

(from HEFCE)

From the Times Higher article:

Beth Steiner, a senior higher education policy adviser at Hefce, told a workshop last month that the findings had “raised several questions in our minds about Unistats and how fit for purpose it might be”.

She said that one solution could be a system that allows students to select “different levels of detail” about courses. A Hefce spokesman said the council was not anticipating any changes to Unistats before 2017.

Ms Steiner said that Hefce had assumed that “if you give them [prospective students] lots and lots of information, they will take that information and they will systematically work through it and they will make a reasoned analysis and decision based on that analysis”.

“We fully own up to that assumption, which we have made in the past – but it’s clearly not realistic,”

But is this really that much of a surprise?

Do people always act as rational consumers when making purchase decisions? There is a lot more at play in the decision-making process for potential students: family connection to a university, locality, sports facilities, type of campus. This list could go on, but importantly contains factors that are not readily reduced to simple numbers. This is summarised in the summary of the report as:

Preferences are often partially-formed and endogenous to social and economic context, and people are rarely fully informed utility maximisers

As I posted on Twitter:

twitter re student choices

This is not to dismiss this work out of hand, there are some important principles in the final summary that anyone involved in providing student information will find interesting. The challenge will be to understand how we can interpret and apply this, at the same time as the  market principles that currently underpin higher education dominate the narrative with some not fully formed ideas about how markets and consumers really operate.

3 thoughts on “Information for Prospective Students

  1. The article proves the purchase of a degree is the same of any product purchase – a combination of fact and emotional decision; sadly (for marketers especially) no-one can predict how much ‘fact’ or how much ’emotion’ each individual is prepared to make.

    In recent research with students we have seen that Unistats is used – at some stage of the decision making process; so it’s essential information is correct and readily available. Transparency is required.

  2. I quite agree – making decisions on dubious statistics makes no sense. What a pity the University management team don’t apply the same principles when making decisions about what awards to cut, the level of fees etc. To paraphrase, there are bad decisions, terrible decisions and decisions based on spreadsheets!

  3. I enjoyed this HEFC report which I believe was originally entitled “state the bleeding obvious”. It reminds me of the line “there are lies, damm lies and statistics!”

    Yes we cannot separate out information from the experience. Walking around Waitrose* this morning I am bombarded with information. The tub of houmus I bought is covered in information. Fat, salt, sugar content, but as I am not concerned with a calorie controlled diet (and maybe I should be!) I chose not to read the information. Its irrelevant to me. Instead I enjoy the Waitrose experience, pleasant settings, great customer service, clear brand and aspirational environment….. Maybe there is a model here for Universities?

    The data we are measured against (NSS, good degrees, employability) we can impact. There is no point in complaining it’s not a true reflection or it’s not a true measure or my students don’t complete the survey. If the goal posts change we just need to get on with it and quickly. We need to get on with maximising our results. We just need to make it happen.

    I’m very lucky I work with excellent student focused academics, administrators and technicians who I believe ensure we enhance a high quality student experience? As Michael a Porter states in a mature market we either need to differentiates on quality or price. As every University has the same price it’s all about quality.

    The excellent Gordon Tredgold presented at the University his FAST leadership again last week in Professor Rune By MBA class. Gordon’s “F” in FAST (!) is about focus. Our focus is about putting the student at the heart of what we do. That’s our simple mission statement. That’s it in a line….

    And this is not about bending over backwards for the students, actually it’s about being clear on student expectations (attendance, ethic, engagement etc). It’s not by proving support which does not address student ability issues. The anxious level 4 student should graduate a far less anxious person as we develop them over three years for the world of work – a Staffs Grad promise, “it’s a guarantee.” How can You put the students at the heart of what you do if you only have a there there my dear approach?

    It’s not just through learning and teaching we put our students at the heat of everything we do. We also do this by ensuring emphasis on our academics producing high quality research outputs, investing in staff development, good estate design, robust and clear policies, encouraging a challenge culture, by developing commercial activity, and developing very good leadership…. I could go on…. I often do.

    I disagree with George’s comment about academics being the product (sorry George). I think the product is the student experience. All else is the medium to deliver it.

    Anyway I’m off to buy a new Panasonic television as the last one stopped working, but first need to read all the data on its performance…

    (*Peter Jones is on annual leave. The pitta breads he made with his daughter Evie went well with the houmus he purchsed. He also shops in Lidl)

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