Why do FE students choose one institution over another? There’s no straight answer to this question. FE students are a large demographic, and their decisions are influenced by many different things: the economy, their academic priorities, their financial status, and their long-term career plans –amongst other things.

To get a more concrete idea of what they value most, we surveyed hundreds of FE students and their parents to determine which factors held the most influence over their eventual college choice. The results reveal much about what’s considered most desirable in UK courses and institutions, and where these institutions must demonstrate improvement.

Value over vanity

In 2015, the top three considerations for potential students looking to enroll in a FE institution were proximity to home (deemed most important by 38% of survey respondents), course reputation (38%), and institutional reputation (29%). In 2016, all three have experienced some decline: while location remains a major concern (37%), course reputation (30%) and an institutional reputation (21%) were both proven to be less influential than in previous years.

Those parents surveyed also revealed a decline in influence for the latter two factors (though a rather more incremental one): 48% consider course reputation to be the most important factor (compared to 54% in 2015), while 42% consider institutional reputation to be their main consideration (compared to 45% last year). Alongside proximity, these still comprise the three primary considerations for parents.

The implicit suggestion here is that vanity factors such as prestige are gradually losing their long-held appeal to students – and as these considerations wane, others wax. 26% of students rate employability as their most important concern (compared to 21% in 2015), while 17% consider financial assistance and bursaries to be their highest priority (compared to 10% in 2015).  

Parents, for their part, recognised the importance of these factors in 2015, and still do in 2016: 36% still rank employability as their principal influence, while 16% think financial assistance and bursaries are of the utmost importance –a 1% increase on the year before.

Safety and convenience

In the wake of several high-profile data breaches, the issue of IT security is forefront for both students and parents. Legislative compliance around personal and payment security has become a major concern - 82% of students and 93% of their parents consider it “important” or “very important”.

As crucial as security is, convenience is also vital. Technology provides easy online access to making and managing payments, although options available within colleges are not always up-to-date. Students and parents are increasingly expecting an ‘always-on’payment platform that allows them to make payments as and when it suits them. Based on the latest survey results, in the event of an unsatisfactory payment experience, 58% of students and 79% of parents would consider lodging a complaint with the institution, and 22% and 13% respectively would potentially complain in an online forum.

What is a satisfactory payment experience? 59% of students and 72% of parents consider consistency (i.e. the ability to make all payments using the same payment methods and options) as either “important”or “very important”, while 37% of the former and 35% of the latter consider cashless payment options either “important”or “very important”. There is also a growing demand to pay for services online, with 57% of potential students (a 9% increase on 2015) and 66% of parents professing a preference for this method.

Why? Students and parents alike want a consistent payment experience because they expect a more consistent, convenient experience from FE colleges in general. A common thread throughout this survey is a desire for ease of use. When asked what would increase the likelihood of them recommending an institution, 29% of students and 34% of parents said a simpler registration process, while 38% and 40% said easier access to information online. Furthermore, 32% and 42% also said they would more likely recommend a college based on quality of communication during and after the application process; 37% and 40% would do the same based on quality of communication upon arrival.

The future

Of course every student has a different set of concerns, and no FE college will ever be able to please everybody. This survey report is an analysis of current preferences, which can and do change. For the foreseeable future, however, one thing is clear: academic prestige isn’t the drawcard it used to be. A more pragmatic focus is emerging, with a demand for education to improve prospects as well as minds. The most attractive colleges of today are the ones that can launch careers –without forcing their students to break the bank

By Holger Bollmann, Director, WPM Education

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