Saturday, 19 December 2015

Big bucks in the VCE

One university watcher describes VCE-reveal-day as a "feeding frenzy", as schools compete for air time to announce their latest fantastic ATAR results, and universities compete to sign those students up to HECS-funded-course-places.  

At least three of Melbourne's top private schools hired boutique public relations firms to promote their students' results. That's on top of the existing media coordinators that many independent schools already employ.

In the public system, it is often the job of the school principal to email media about high achieving students.

Neil Pierson offers diplomas in "school marketing". He is one of the only people in the country offering training in the niche, albeit growing industry. These days, schools hire graphic designers, photographers and videographers to help build their brand, Neil said.

"The number of staff is increasing and it is tending to become more professional," he says. "There is so much competition in education, it is big business."

Neil doesn't deny that lavish marketing budgets are the domain of the more "image conscious" private schools.

"It just doesn't work for many public schools … they don't have the budgets or staffing to do anything beyond what they are allowed to do, they don't have as much freedom to spend as private schools do. That doesn't mean they have a better or worse education, they just don't have the opportunities to tell the stories in the same way."

Meanwhile, universities pour an enormous amount of money into advertising during results season. The sector's combined marketing budget runs to about $250 million last year.

A more subtle way of attracting students is with a university scholarship. The Age analysed the 835 Victorian-based scholarships in the Good Universities Guide database and found that almost $4 million was given away in scholarships a year – often on top of course fees being paid in full.

Deakin University offers 36 separate scholarships, La Trobe 47, Monash 122 and RMIT 36.

Melbourne University offer 298 separate scholarships, more than the other four put together – a showcase of the University's financial resources. The University's most expensive scholarship offers $30,000 a year towards a student's accommodation.

What does a university get for this sort of outlay? Less than you might think, and possibly nothing at all, says the Grattan Institute's higher education program director Andrew Norton. He points out top students are probably going to study at top universities anyway, making a scholarship more of an "icing on the cake situation".

"I don't believe that they change very much, and therefore it's not a particularly  sensible use of uni money."

Murdoch University-bsed education inequality researcher Laura Perry sees a feedback cycle operating.

Wealthy private schools offer scholarships to lure the best and the brightest. Those students then graduate with high scores, driving up the school's average year 12 result. Research by the Australian Council for Educational Research finds scholarship holders produce average scores of 98.1.

Parents are lured by that high average mark, swelling a successful private school's enrolments. So bolstered, the private school can spend more on scholarships and marketing to attract more top students, who then get the scholarships. 

I think it is also time to revisit he fact that private schools especially the 'elite' ones cull their year 10s and 11s if they don't look like doing well in VCE. They don't want mediocre students bringing down their average. They deny this but there is enough anecdotal evidence to prove that it well and truely happens! VCE results are now big business. The newspapers are still full of stories about VCE results even today, nearly a week after the results were sent out. it will only get bigger and more exaggerated and more cloaked in mythology.

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