College recruitment should take into account the needs of students, not just the colleges’ own reputation, writes Richard Evans.
Recent coverage, both in the tabloid and broad sheet Press has highlighted the current concerns about the ethics and morality of some of the techniques being introduced by a few colleges in recruiting students. Massive amounts of money relative to the overall college budget are now being spent in some colleges on publicity and incentives for prospective students. These incentives take the form either of financial or other inviting bounties. These activities most certainly raise serious and fundamental questions about the ethics of recruitment and some of the questions that need to be addressed are given below.
• Are institutional goals subverting the needs of the learner and is the purpose just about achieving student target growth?
• Should not the financial incentives be more selective and be aimed at students who need them?
The recent approach by the Press in the so-called ‘silly season’ has, as often before, focused on issues around league tables and achievement results. They do this in a transient and superficial fashion, often without a reasoned and careful synthesis or analysis of the issues.
The Press should report lifelong learning achievements and not just obsessively focus on 16-18 year old achievements.
But if the sector is not to further attract criticism from the Press, answers must be provided to these questions.
The learners’ needs must be paramount in the debate. Institutions are there to provide a quality service for the students, based on objective and honest guidance at entry and during their studies. The provision must be matched to the student’s ability and aspiration, which allows the student to ‘stay the course’ and ultimately to achieve. One of the unfortunate consequences of this cut-throat competition and the subverting of the student’s needs will be low attendance, low levels of retention and subsequently failure to achieve. Some recent excellent research by Ken Spours raises serious and fundamental questions about participation, retention and achievement in the Further Education (FE) sector since incorporation and these now merit serious consideration. It makes no sense for colleges to broadcast the fact they have grown significantly if later one witnesses low retention and achievement levels.
‘It makes no sense for colleges to broadcast the fact they have grown significantly if later one witnesses low retention and achievement levels’.
In this time of diminishing resource, colleges need to think carefully about what proportion of their budget they can commit to marketing and publicity and possible incentives for their prospective students. If a disproportionate part of their budgets are deflected from their primary purpose, then ultimately the quality of their provision will suffer. These approaches most certainly do deflect valuable resources, whether these be financial or human, and I appreciate it is a difficult balance to strike, but there surely is some sensible level that needs to be justified.
Some colleges offer incentives to attract the more ‘capable’ and advantaged students, no doubt to improve the institution’s own league table ratings. Such ‘creaming off’ tactics further disadvantage students who might not enjoy financial or social advantages. Incentives, if offered, must provide opportunities for students who need them.
Competition is healthy and can lead to efficiency gains and improve the service to the learner, but the current culture seems to be swinging too much to a cut-throat approach between providers.
A number of colleges seem resolute that they wish to divert students from another institution to theirs, and overall they are not increasing the participation of new students within the sector. There surely needs to be some sort of analysis of the cost benefit. How many students have been brought into the sector, been retained and achieved with all the additional costs in publicity and incentives? Are we losing sight of the real harvest of student growth amongst mature students and failing to respond to the changing demands of the employers?
One of the primary goals of the sector should be to make a contribution towards developing a learning society and the concept of lifelong learning.
One of the real problems at present is if a college takes the high moral and ethical ground, it could lose out in its student growth and be seriously financially disadvantaged compared with other institutions that recruit students in a more cavalier fashion. Even accepting that in the long term these institutions will be recognized as quality providers, in the short term they could be driven to adopting similar tactics to the other colleges which will sadly further drive ethical considerations into the background.