Universities are being offered research on how to use the irrational side of student decision-making to attract more taught postgraduates.
A report by market research firm YouthSight seeks to use insights from behavioural economics to understand taught postgraduate choices.
YouthSight has not released the full report, PGT+BE: Using Behavioural Economics (BE) to Understand How Students Really Make Their Taught Postgraduate (PGT) Decisions, to Times Higher Education, citing concerns that doing so would undermine its value to potential buyers (it costs £3,900 to purchase).
But in promotional material, it describes how PGT+BE outlines the extent to which students “rely on emotions, rules of thumb…and the need to ‘play it safe’ ” – and how universities can best communicate their courses in this light.
Presenting the research’s initial findings at a conference in August, Ben Marks, managing director of YouthSight, said that it would consider the reasons for applicant decisions that students were “not so comfortable…declaring”.
Addressing delegates at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education annual conference, held in Manchester, he cited the “important effect” of the prevailing weather on university open days as an example of irrational student decision-making.
“What clever things can you do to mitigate against bad weather on open days?” he asked delegates.
Behavioural economics stressed the importance of “minimising cognitive effort” on the part of decision-makers, an “important” principle for universities, he explained.
Mr Marks told THE that the final report, released last month, “included a few exercises inspired by behavioural economics (which posits the idea that many of our choices are less rational than we sometimes assume)”.
One part looks at how quickly participants respond when asked why they are considering postgraduate courses. The quicker the response, the more intuitive the motive, allowing universities greater insight into which reasons students had to rationalise most.
“It strikes me that doing this at the aggregate level is perfectly ethical,” he argued.
He stressed that the YouthSight presentation in August had been made before the research fieldwork had begun.
The report contains suggestions that are “fairly broad” and related to “tailoring [a] message to particular groups”, he added.
Rachel Wenstone, vice-president for higher education at the National Union of Students, said that the “insights of behavioural choice…don’t give universities carte blanche to manipulate student choice”, although she added that there was no evidence they were doing so.
Another snippet from the study, released on the YouthSight website, is that students expect to pay 75 per cent more for taught postgraduate courses at a “high-ranked” university than a “low-ranked” one, a much greater difference than the reality.
“There could be a compelling argument to review…fee levels at some universities,” it says.
The study also identifies a broad range of prices, between £4,000 and £8,000, where “changing the fees could…end up having little impact on demand”.