Demand analysis could be Accord’s Achilles

My local Woollies is 4 minutes away by car. I don’t ride a bike there because the potholes combined with the remarkable frequency of oversize agricultural vehicles make the journey life threatening, so instead it’s a quick and painless drive.

I live in Ardmona, and the Woollies is the epicentre of Mooroopna. We are proudly rural and lucky to have a large Indigenous population. Despite gradual gentrification, this has been a working class town for decades, picking, packing, processing and canning fruit for the world. There are many low income families and some with disabilities.

In other words, we have the full quadrella of the equity families who the Accord proposes to uplift so that within 16 years the vast majority have completed TAFE or university qualifications and are working in higher value jobs.

Welcome to the second Australia. These are Professor O’Kane’s equity students – the ones that are going to double tertiary enrolments to 1.8 million by 2050.

Stroll down the aisles and you can just about guarantee that there aren’t a lot of people with university on their minds. In this second Australia, replicated in similar communities across the country, post-secondary education is low on the priority list of many families, particularly as the cost-of-living crisis bites. Completing secondary school is a signal achievement, given the monumental challenges faced by many.

We can carol about the marvels of singular examples of people who have dragged themselves up from the mean streets to high office ‘til the cows come home, but the Accord needs to broker changes so this becomes the rule, not the exception. 

Regional Unis make case for cash

Last week Charles Sturt University VC Professor Renée Leon spruiked the case for additional funding for regional universities to address the needs of equity students, attracting the applause of colleagues.

Regional universities have long fought the good fight to deliver outstanding higher education opportunities, and especially to support success for First Nations people, students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, and those from non-metropolitan locations.” Professor Leon wrote.

But we are fighting with one hand tied behind our backs, hampered by unfair Government funding models that don’t recognise the significant differences between universities.

The case for higher funding per student to account for increased delivery costs has merit. It’s harder to attract students to stay in the bush, or to leave their urban convenience for rustic rural digs. It’s harder to build economies of scale, attract staff and there are often significant travel costs for staff.

However, before sitting down with a treasury abacus, Education Minister Jason Clare needs to confront the absence of a horse in front of his cart. You can change funding formulas, open study hubs and put out all the welcome mats you can muster – but what if they don’t want to come?

Mass cultural change required if Accord is to succeed

Mass behavioural and cultural change is required if the higher education system is ever going to see crowds of equity students stepping onto campuses. That requires market research, marketing and communications strategy and speedy action to ensure campaigns to change behaviour are relevant.

Governments and lobby groups sometimes do this well – but they seek to move the needle of behaviour by a relatively small margin.

Years ago, as a government advisor I worked on campaigns to reduce aspects of problem gambling, to try to stop kids getting injured from falling basketball rings and to improve parenting positivity. Shoehorned in between the regular diet of crisis management and sundry press releases, these campaigns were pretty successful, but were measurable by moving behaviours in the right direction by a few percentage points.

In contrast, the Accord proposes to move around a million Australians to devote months or years of their life to study within a 16-year window. Until now, much of the focus has been on whether the sector can cope and how it must change. But all this preparation and reform is meaningless without addressing and understanding behavioural change.

This change requires us to re-think how to fit study around the chaos, micro-dramas, financial desolation and higher incidence of traumas that afflict many people in the second Australia.

Our system has ignored the expertise of professional marketing and recruitment experts and market researchers for far too long. Higher Education strategies, including the Accord, are shaped around a prism of what is good for HE institutions and the economy, with a black hole in the place where market intelligence should be.

This approach has failed repeatedly, just as the much-maligned Job Ready Graduates pricing structure failed – because policy makers simply ignore demand factors.

The vision of uplifting these students to brighter futures through opportunities to study and build careers is long overdue, but who asked the students of this new leviathan system? To share in it; to share ownership of the dream? Who is doing the market research to underpin a cultural change in the second Australia that will be fundamental if this reform is to work?

Exposing the Accord’s Achilles

To make rapid headway in recruiting equity students at the rate envisaged by the Accord, a strong commitment to market research and consultation is required, to underpin solutions that are practical and effective – not just nice ideas.

The demand side of the Accord’s changes must be thoroughly explored and heard in the implementation process if it is to have a chance of making the changes that the sector wants and Australia needs.

The absence of attention in relation to the desire of equity students to consider tertiary studies could be the Achilles that renders the Accord just another reform phase that was well intentioned but never quite gained momentum.

Market insights required

After working with 24 universities and a dozen TAFEs, my contention is that strategy is only efficient and effective when institutions park their ego at the door, and listen to the communities they purport to serve. Every time we have worked with clients to understand what local communities want, what their barriers are to study, how they could work, and then worked to implement that change, it has resulted in substantial enrolment growth.

Time and again we have worked with institutions to grow enrolments relatively easily once this occurs – responding to market research insights with simple changes to entrance procedures, communication and support. There are now many case studies to demonstrate that these changes can bring more equity students. However, to drive change on a scale that the Accord calls for, a much broader reach is required.

Over the last decade, we have conducted market research projects with prospective students from equity backgrounds in every State and Territory of Australia over the past decade. For many education is something that gets in the way of satisfying all the lower order needs on Maslow’s hierarchy, which many of us take for granted.

Safety. Shelter. Food.

Responses like this, with a startling variety of challenges confronting prospective students from equity backgrounds. “You can offer me free TAFE or scholarships to offset the cost of degrees, but can you find someone to feed my little sister or take her to school in the morning, if I have to go away to study?” “Who will look after my sick Nan, like I do when I come home from school? There’s nobody else who can do it.” “How do I convince my drug-addicted parent that they should let me buy a textbook, when they are using my family allowance payments to buy drugs?” “How can I afford to do anything other than a casual job, when my birth certificate is missing, meaning I can’t get a tax file number or a bank account?”

Assumed knowledge

One further issue muddies the waters with equity communities – assumed knowledge.

About a decade ago, I decided to look into why agriculture courses were low in enrolments. Our team surveyed about 500 prospective students asking them whether they would consider studying agriculture, whether they were aware of the high starting salary, work opportunities etc. The most common response was, ‘What is agriculture?’ The students liked the idea of the course, and loved the benefits on offer, but were blinded by institutions assuming that they knew what agriculture was.

Ongoing issues in engaging with equity students are compounded by issues of terminology and a requirement to learn often complex systems and terminology relating to enrolment, even before attending their first lecture. Market research with equity groups is about understanding, not just how to sell the dream.

Compare the aisles of Parliament with those of Mooroopna Woolies and you start to see where planning has gone so wrong in the past. Neither have university funding at the top of their priority list, but the challenges to survive day-to-day are far more apparent in the latter.

Great change will not be affected without walking hand in hand with the second Australia – the equity communities that everybody needs, but too few talk to and understand.



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