When thinking about marketing their education products Universities sometimes make the comparison to buying a car. After all, the cost of an undergraduate degree is now £28000 and for that, you could buy a BMW X1, an Audi Q5 or a Ford Mondeo (I'm not Jeremy Clarkson, but I guess that wouldn't be the popular choice)
Of course, the only problem is that the government isn't offering you an attractive loan which you don't have to pay back until you earn enough money, or fake your own death. Actually, why not? Why should the education industry get special treatment in preference to the car industry? (someone at some point in the future is going to ask that question, so I'll beat them to it).
But the comparison really gets going when we start to look at how cars are sold. They look really sexy. They don't yet come with a 'shag guarantee', but they do their best to suggest it. Is education really that different in the 'come hither' stakes? I suspect not looking at the promotional material for a lot of universities. And let's face it, most young people go to university in the hope that they might have sex. Just as the car manufacturers rarely show their products in endless queues of traffic, or the encrusted popcorn on the back seat, so Universities never show bored faces, or the frantic attempts to find parking or a computer in the library to work on just before an assignment is due.
Sex aside (which sells anything) the similarity between education and a car ends there. When you buy a car, you drive it away from the showroom full of pride and... it works (unless it's a Toyota, in which case you might have trouble stopping). What happens when you buy education? The showroom experience (before you actually get your hands on the product) is not too bad. Lots of new faces! (some of them attractive) You fill in forms. You try hard to avoid the strange looking people handing out free condoms and lollipops. There is a possibility you might get drunk in the first week.
In your second week, you get your hands on the 'product'. The course. This is where you realise that unlike the car, which worked out of the showroom, with education what you've bought is a do-it-yourself kit. All you have are 'instructions' for how to eventually make your education product 'work', and these instructions are only given out at particular times of day in particular places. Furthermore, none of the instructions you are given carry any guarantee of comprehensibility. Instead they carry threats of sanctions... if you fail to show you've understood the instructions so far delivered, some of the essential parts of your education product will be removed, only to be replaced if you follow new instructions (delivered at a particular time and place).
But everybody's in the same boat, struggling to build their education products. But be careful not to help anyone else because there's a deadly sin called 'plagiarism' which will see your education product go to the crusher! But if you begin to wonder that the 'educational product' wasn't such a good purchase, make sure you've read the small-print before you put pen to paper.
This is because buying an education product isn't really like buying a car. It's more like buying the most expensive mobile phone contract you could possibly imagine. Once you've signed your contract for £9000, deciding you don't like the product is like dropping your incredibly expensive mobile phone down the toilet. No insurance and no refund. You're stuck. You have to pay. Of course, this doesn't make you feel too good, so you start skipping some of the instructions to make your education product work. Consequently, much more than your education product is broken.
The student's problem in all this is that nobody can help them negotiate the risks of buying education. I suspect the first educational business that makes an offer to potential students that does this will revolutionise the market. I think when it happens, it will be such a simple business model that we will be astonished as to why it took so long to happen. Unfortunately, it may take a few bad product reviews before any real appetite for change develops. Only then will the sector wake up to the first rule of business: understand your customers.