Competing in a flawed market

Institutions must work with and embrace the new environment of competition if they are to survive, writes Aaron Porter. But just because there is more competition in the market it doesn't follow that a simplistic 'consumer sovereignty' model is the most useful way of placing students at the heart of the system.

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Contributed by Aaron Porter, November 2011.

The senior leadership of our HE institutions have a lot on their plates at the moment, and I think they boil down to three key things: reputation, profile and recruitment. This is fuelled by several issues, including (but not exclusively) the recruitment of AAB students, trying to anticipate how courses will fare relative to their pricing, and restrictions on the recruitment of international students. And closely intertwined with all of these issues and more, is a concept that all HEIs need to keep focused on; the increasingly competitive environment of Higher Education.

There are quite a few signs emerging that universities are having to think more about their reputation, and their future recruitment success. For example, employability is increasingly on their radar: a lot of HEIs are taking a closer look at the quality of their careers provision. And there’s currently a HEFCE investigation into getting new information on taught Postgraduate courses. When the NSS came in a few years ago, this had a big impact on the standing of some institutions, and so might new information on PG taught.

I think that this is related to an increasing presence of competition in the sector – not to be confused with increasing marketisation. In recent times, there has been some debate as to whether we are moving to a market economy or not. I’d say that we are moving towards a flawed market. Some market behaviours exist; there are some elements of supply and demand, after all. But it is not a fair market; there is not an adequate level of information available; there are huge barriers to entry; and a student can’t easily move elsewhere if unhappy.

This does not in any way lessen the inevitable truth of the competitive environment HE is now operating in. There will be more private providers, though perhaps not as many or as quickly as some had feared initially. There will be more HE / FE offerings. And as the recent changes get properly embedded, we may well end up with a slightly smaller HE provision.

Given the very real implications of what a smaller HE provision entails, institutions must work with and embrace this new environment of competition, if they are to survive. But just because there is more competition in the market it doesn't follow that a simplistic 'consumer sovereignty' model is the most useful way of placing students at the heart of the system. Academic leadership will have to be sufficiently market savvy and research led. They will need to lead their institutions in giving serious thought to what it is that their institution offers, and communicating that coherently to the people who are important to them.

 

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AaronPorter

Aaron Porter is a higher education consultant and freelance journalist. He served as President of the National Union of Students 2010-11, and has served as a non-executive board member for UCAS, the Higher Education Academy and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

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Topics: The case for change.