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Lessons for higher education from private – and quasi-private – schools

  • 22 January 2018
  • By Mungo Dunnett

This guest blog comes from Mungo Dunnett, Director of Mungo Dunnett Associates, a strategic and research company working with UK schools and, increasingly, universities.

I am not sure all universities understand how rapidly the higher education decision-making process is altering in private schools and the more selective end of the state sector. The behaviours of students (and parents) in private schools are now very similar to those at the top end of the state sector – with these two school sources, of course, remaining a key component of many universities’ admissions activities. The following comments are based on the largest available body of insight into that market: 23,000 in-depth parent interviews that we have carried out since 2011 with 164 school clients.

The key to decisions about whether or not to engage in private schooling is affordability. For the private school market, this is also becoming a key determinant of university choices.

In the last ten years, private day school fees have risen by 65%. Boarding school fees have gone up by 60%, though boarding pupils are less than 1 in 8 of the private school market, so their commercial importance to higher education institutions can easily be overstated.

Let’s focus on day pupils therefore. This is not the territory of the super-rich: these are, in many cases, multi-generational buyers of private education, and also of universities; and yet the fee rises, in spite of the surge they have triggered in both parents working full-time, are driving many of those families out of the private school market. Ambitious families such as these are now the motor of selective state schools and the top streams at successful non-selective state schools. These schools’ parent bodies in many ways replicate the profile and behaviours of the private day market. There is now significant crossover between private and what might be termed ‘quasi-private’ sixth-form options, with increasingly few private school families not having considered, or chosen, a local state sixth-form offering.

There are two results. First, fee strain in private schooling has resulted in rapid sociological change. While the number of pupils in private education remains broadly flat, ‘traditional’ multi-generational buyers are leaving the sector and being replaced by first-time buyers of private education and these buyers carry different perspectives and expectations. Secondly, there is a more prosaic attitude towards higher education: its purpose is increasingly to serve as a conveyor belt into higher-paying employment.

Where issues of finance – and pay-off – predominate, other perspectives on the university years diminish. According to my research, fewer private or quasi-private parents now seek higher education as a valued immersion in academia, a maturing period, or simply a self-evidently ‘correct’ journey. Similarly, decreasing proportions of parents envisage (or endorse) their offspring spending three years in what they sometimes perceive as a responsibility-free socialising zone. Instead, issues of affordability and consumerism are becoming a dominant theme in those hitherto middle-class heartlands. It means that the parents themselves – much to the discomfort of many higher education institutions’ recruitment teams – are front and centre in the choice about where to study.

This has emerging implications in three very different areas:

  1. the positioning of marketing material and events;
  2. universities’ outreach to sixth-form influencers; and
  3. the stress placed upon students by their increasingly expectant parents.

But the message is this: parents are now, and quite suddenly, more involved than before in their teenage children’s choices.  They would appear to care more than previous generations about their child’s happiness at university (which is an extension of the dominant ‘hands-on’ parenting evident in private and quasi-private schooling). There is also anxiety about the financial commitment, with their grafting graduate child expected to be burdened by student loan debt, and the parents unable to pay it off for them; and there is anxiety about the practicalities of entering the congested job market.

This anxiety manifests itself in different ways.  Many parents see themselves as ‘savvy’ education buyers (choosing the private school that dominates the local market; moving to the area that facilitates access to the selective grammar, and so on). The growing attraction of non-traditional routes into employment is overcoming previous certainties: hence the stories of non-UK universities’ competing merits, and of vocational courses and professional firms’ fast-track school leaver programmes. In a world where university itself is no longer the unquestioned guarantor of career success, ‘savvy’ parents are motivated to seek more cost-effective and/or efficacious routes.

In summary: just as the independent school sector (and its often interchangeable cousin, the academic top-end state sector) have become fundamentally altered in recent years as the result of affordability pressures, so these pressures are affecting higher education choices.  There is a fragmentation of previous buying behaviours; and while universities are struggling to cope with the removal of student number controls, the process of undergraduate decision-making has significantly changed. While the sector remains as rich as ever in statistical data, the appetite of higher education institutions to seek real insight into the buying behaviour of their prospective market remains, in comparison to the business sector, surprisingly weak.

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