Spent much of today in City College, Brighton with first years Ami and Megan, delivering a talk and chatting to sixth form students about the courses here at St Mary's. It was a really good experience and something that, in the scramble, to ensure our courses are full next year we need to do more of.
Although it's still not really clear how the rise in tuition fees has effected recruitment, not just nationally, but for individual institutions and programmes, the one thing that is clear is that seventeen and eighteen year olds are being much more careful about choosing their options.
In the last few years I've often asked potential applicants who've turned up for open day how many similar events they've been too and, with some notable exceptions, the answer has always been 2 or 3. This year, however, it's more likely to be 7 or 8. One girl I spoke to at the last evening had been to an impressive 22.
Last year the Universities had the luxury of a competitive market to work in. The number of Gap year students feel dramatically as school leavers tried to get a place on the old fee scale. This year, with applications down, the choices are all with the students and the onus is on us as institutions to offer attractive and worthwhile courses. Already this is making itself felt in St Mary's where a new marketing campaign 'you said, we did...' is encouraging students to claim entitlements from the institution.
Whilst student experience needs to be at the heart of most decisions a University makes there is a crude theory that all of this will drive up standards across the sector. The more students pay, the logic goes, the more they will demand. But it's the nature of that demand that matters and it's romantic to think that the primary drive of the young is value for money. In many cases I think undergraduates are driven by appetite and for educationalists, if you'll excuse the pun, that's difficult to swallow.
Education is a challenge. Learning new ways of thinking, making connections between disparate disciplines and subjects and absorbing fresh knowledge takes personal investment and willpower. The threat of a consumer driven sector is that students believe they are paying their lecturers to do this work for them and repackage it all in dumbed down, easy to access forms. Paying more doesn't necessarily mean you'll go for the healthy option. Given the choice many students will head for Nandos every time.