Current British Attitudes to the Higher Education 'Brand'

Higher education (HE), especially here in England, seems to be experiencing unprecedented attention, scrutiny and debate at the moment.

Higher education (HE), especially here in England, seems to be experiencing unprecedented attention, scrutiny and debate at the moment. Late in 2010 the Browne Report, combined with the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) proposed major changes to higher education funding; tuition fees were to be increased to among the highest among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries, the budget for teaching was to be significantly reduced, and, overall public investment was to fall to among the lowest in the OECD (let alone compared to China, India and other emerging economies).

These trends were continued recently with the publication of the much-delayed HE White Paper. The vision that drives David Willetts, the government Minister responsible for much of this change, is to create a higher education 'market' in England that is more sustainable, efficient and 'consumer'-led, with students encouraged to think and behave more like rational customers.

Such extensive policy change is always both controversial and political, with some welcoming these developments and others rioting in the streets! Here at the Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning (PCPL) we aim to provide more light than heat around such topics, stimulating debate in a non-partisan, independent and evidence-based manner. For example, we want to use this blog post to consider new research about current public attitudes towards higher education, especially in regards to it becoming more of a paid-for 'go-compare' service, with greater information available to student 'consumers'. With this aim in mind, we recently partnered with YouGov-Cambridge to analyse a representative sample of the British public answering three simple questions about the 'brand' of higher education.

1) On a 0-10 scale, how likely are you to recommend to a young person today that they go into higher education? (4,239 base)

Here in the Centre we analysed responses on this '0-10 scale' using Net Promoter Score (NPS), an imperfect but commonly used performance measure that groups respondents according to if they are "unhappy detractors" (score 0-6), "satisfied but unenthusiastic passives" (7-8) or "loyal and enthusiastic promoters" (9-10) of a particular service or brand. Note that this approach accounts for how people actually complete such surveys, assuming a 7 or 8 out of 10 to be average, rather than the 5 you might initially expect. The NPS score is then established by subtracting the percentage of detractors from the percentage of promoters, ignoring those without strong feelings and allowing for overall comparisons between brands e.g. Apple is the leading UK brand with an NPS of 67%.

Our key observations from responses to this question are as follows:

The overall likelihood to recommend higher education to young people is far lower than we expected, with 7% more 'detractors' than 'promoters'.

The under 55's are 10% less likely to recommend HE than older people.

People from lower social grades (C2DE) are 11% less likely to recommend HE than people from higher grades (ABC1).

People from London and Scotland are more likely to recommend HE than those in other regions, with people in the South by far the least likely to recommend it (the difference between Scotland and the South was 26%).

Women are 2% less likely to recommend HE than men.

2) What single word springs to mind when you think of higher education? (4,221 base)

A quick frequency count of how often different responses were given clearly shows current public concerns with the costs of higher education. The most frequently used words were 'expensive' (given by 775 or 18.4% of respondents), 'fees (171, 4.1%) and 'cost' (156, 3.7%). To put this into context, more positive words such as 'opportunities' (107, 2.5%), 'learning' (74, 1.8%) and 'knowledge' (54, 1.3%) were given by significantly fewer people. It remains to be seen if this focus on the cost of HE will continue into the future?

3) What single word explains why people go into higher education? (4,212 base)

Another word frequency count for this question clearly illustrates that 'fun' is by far the word given by the most people (2,383 respondents or over half with 56.6%). The next two most frequently given words were 'career' (214, 5.1%) and 'ambition' (186, 4.4%). This was a surprising finding and possibly indicates that many people don't seem to take university seriously, perhaps seeing it as a luxury and an experience that only benefits students, rather than wider society.

As you can see, there are some fascinating initial findings among the responses to these three simple questions. When taken together, some might argue that this illustrates real challenges for higher education. However without further research, perhaps a longitudinal analysis of changes over time or in-depth qualitative work, it has hard to draw firm conclusions. Here at the Centre we're keen to hear your opinions on this topic so please use the comment function below and tell us your views with this simple poll of your reactions to this research. I personally believe that the only way for the hard-won and highly valuable 'brand' of British higher education to be protected and developed is by gathering evidence and discussing different policy options openly.

NOTE: All figures are from the Annual YouGov-Cambridge National Census, an online panel survey with a sample size of 64,303 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 13th April - 20th May 2011 and figures have been weighted to be representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

Louis Coiffait is a guest-expert for YouGov-Cambridge. Follow @LouisMMCoiffait on Twitter or his blog for HE policy news, comment and analysis. All text is solely the opinion of the author with research support from Ronley Kirwan. The original raw dataset and analysed version are both available in Excel format on request.

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