Counting the costs of the credit-based system

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Outreach work and market strategy strike different chords for adult educators. At my university we commissioned professional market researchers to help us judge the implications for our actual and potential student population of the shift to a more credit-based programme. What kinds of attitudes to studying for credit are held by our existing student body? Does the prospect of credit encourage or deter those who currently do not take part?

The research used focused discussions with a range of different groups, and telephone interviews with a sample of local employers. It was interesting for us to gauge our own reactions, as professional educators, to a report and presentation which used business language very directly.

Once we got behind the terminology, the issues turned out to be quite familiar. Some of the evidence confirmed things we knew already - that older people are less interested in credit, that a university is often viewed negatively by the public but also has a reputation for high academic standards, and that men are less motivated by the social aspects of education. But some of the results were less easy to predict.

One rather complex set of attitudes concerns pricing, or rather willingness to pay. Most respondents found it reasonable that they should be charged for provision which enhances their career prospects. But non-vocational courses were seen as part of a general public education service, which should therefore be provided free. This was as much a matter of principle as of affordability: not "can't pay, won't pay", as much as "might be able to pay, but don't think we should be asked to".

This poses something of a dilemma. From the public policy viewpoint it may make more sense to subsidise the former category more, in order to enhance the nation's stock of skills and knowledge. People can reasonably be asked to pay for their leisure time activities, as they are for theatres and many other forms of cultural consumption. The counter to this has been made many times. First, free, or heavily- subsidised, adult education is part of a nation's cultural lifeblood. Secondly, the public investment in this provision actually has an economic pay-off, both in prompting people to other, more vocationally-geared forms of learning, and in a socially pre-emptive role, keeping people fit and mentally healthy.

Naturally I endorse these latter arguments. But they take us back to the question posed at the outset: how far do we, as public providers, attempt to determine who it is that benefits from the provision? Curiously, those who attack "marketing" on quasi-ideological grounds are the natural allies of the real laissez-faire position: it's up to people to find out about us and come to us if they wish. The market strategists are the ones who challenges us to define what efforts we are making to reach new groups.

There is an assumption that outreach work to draw in new students is always geared to disadvantaged groups. I think this is unfortunate, and not only because it draws an artificial ghetto-line around such groups. I strongly believe that a major task for the liberal tradition in adult education is precisely to extend it to mainstream groups who may well be comparatively advantaged in general terms, but who do not participate at present. I am thinking particularly of those in employment.

First, the more such groups are involved, the broader the support base for liberal adult education. That is the tactical reason. The second is a cultural one: to assert the civilising role of education on the workplace. An economy whose workforce is more widely involved in learning is surely a healthier one. (This happens to define the Japanese view of lifelong learning; although I'm naturally suspicious of easy comparisons with successful economies, I'm naturally happy to welcome this).

But if employed people - or subsets of them - are a target group, what does this do for our pricing policy? Who are the customers, the individuals or the organisations which are maybe supporting them? We could put this in different language, more appetising maybe, but the issues would be the same.

Whatever conclusion we come to on this, one message from the research was stingingly direct. The public want clear and comprehensive information. They are not impressed by institutions which assume that their name speaks for itself. Given that there is plenty of room for expanding the total market, there is every reason for more collaboration, at city or regional level, in listing available opportunities, simply and accessibly. If the prices attached vary widely, so be it; but people should at least know what is there. There are many different markets, and different kinds of market experience. Not all of them are exploitative.

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