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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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“Education was once thought of as the great equalizer by giving everyone a similar start in life. But too often it becomes a contributor to inequality by failing those who start out nearer the bottom.” (Butler, 2017)


There is a conceptual shift from education as a public good to education as a market-driven private commodity. (Laing, 2003) The aim of this paper is to discuss market inclusivity and exclusivity for the low-income consumer in public sector education and private sector education. These two industries will be contrasted with more emphasis on the private sector. As a result of the absence of coherent literature and theoretical frameworks that reflect upon the private education market and the low-income consumer, there were some limitations to the paper.


It is engaged with recent studies on the marketization of the education sector and literature on theories concerning consumer behaviour. Naidoo, Shankar and Veer (2011) explore the emergence of marketing forces that penetrated higher education and how it led to the conceptualization of the student consumer. Hamilton and Catterall (2005) draw on definitions and general assumptions about the low-income consumer and explain the Hill and Stephens' (1997) framework to clarify the low-income consumer and their engagement with the market. Baker, Gentry and Rittenburg (2005) identify consumer vulnerability as a state of weakness that occur because of an imbalance in marketplace interactions and analyses the reasons behind vulnerability. Consumer culture theory stresses about ‘making collective sense' of consumers' environments and constructs a consumption ‘culture'. (Arnould and Thompson, 2005)


Education – Public Sector

    Public education is a public good that is paid with the public. Public schools are inclusive to all consumers, they do not exclude students regarding to their race, gender or income. (Ramey, 2013) They create social coherence, provide economic advancement, and elevate individuals' life chances. However, the low-income consumer cannot benefit from these advantages as much as the high-income consumer due to their exclusion from higher education. One's earnings rise as one receives higher levels of education, where primary school education is not enough for one to do highly-accredited jobs which is mostly the case of the low-income consumer, trapping them in poverty. (Colclough, 2012)

    One problem of public schools is the quality of public education. Schools in poor areas are not equipped with equally great resources and it creates unfairness among students. (Ramey, 2013) Although consumers with disadvantaged backgrounds do not face direct exclusion from public education, they are excluded from adequate education and have limited access to resources. In most countries, public schools struggle to maintain a good quality of education due to the lower qualifications of teachers at public schools in poor districts. Research shows that high-poverty schools do not appeal to teachers that have better qualifications, which discriminates the low-income consumer. (Hill,2007)

    In Nepal, low-income families have identified “negligence and indiscipline of the teachers, large class sizes and a lower standard of English language learning” in public schools. (Save the Children, 2002, p.7) Nevertheless, the parents cannot afford private sector education and thus, their children must attend low quality public schools which do not provide the fundamental level of education. A question raises from this research: How inclusive is public education if the low-income consumer cannot have similar levels of education with the high income consumer? The primary answer is; public education is technically inclusive to all with limitations owing to the social reasons explained above.

Education – Private Sector

There are two parts to this section. First part focuses on private schools and the second part focuses on higher-education.

Private Schools

    The marketing forces have penetrated the education sector due to the emergence of public sector consumerism, socio-political and economic reasons. (Laing, 2003) Consequently, education has become a profit oriented private sector that excludes the low-income consumer.

    Studies show that children from socially advantaged backgrounds have easier access to private schools compared to children with disadvantaged backgrounds who cannot always participate because of the presence of fees. (UNESCO, 2003) Therefore, the low-income consumer encounters exchange restrictions and is neglected. (Hill and Stephens, 1997) For instance, in India, although the fees of private schools are low, most families from low castes are unable to afford and face exclusion from the market. Furthermore, appealing to a particular customer group and how they're perceived are two of the concerns of private schools. The ‘popular' schools can choose between the wanted and the unwanted; wanted students being able and gifted and the unwanted being less able and abnormal. (Barton, 1997) Low-income consumers are defined as ‘flawed consumers' who have low literacy skills and lack normality. (Bauman, 1998) The private sector, thus, discriminates the low-income consumer from the others and enhances the social and cultural divisions. As a result, the low-income consumer experiences the negative consequences of their disadvantaged background as discussed in Hill and Stephens' model. (1997) Moreover, it is confirmed that two out of three students who face a type of exclusion do not return to any other secondary school. (Barton, 1997) This proves the fact that marketing responses are responsible for experienced vulnerability by consumers as a lack of personal control is the elementary part of such experience. (Baker, Gentry and Rittenburg, 2005)

Higher Education

    Public higher education has expanded and become highly complex for governments to manage and finance on their own. It needed marketization in order to maintain its quality. (Naidoo, Shankar and Veer, 2011) Consequently, it has become more open to marketing strategies and commodification, inducing a new consumer culture. (Arnould and Thompson, 2005)

    The elitist culture of higher education leads students with higher socioeconomic backgrounds to understand the symbolic value of their degree but leaves the low income consumer vulnerable. (Naidoo, Shankar and Veer, 2011) As education turned into a commodity, the available choice has increased in the higher education marketplace.  The socially advantaged student shows understanding of the process of choice whereas the disadvantaged student lacks the ability to participate. The low-income consumer, in this situation, does not have the resources needed to engage with the process and the marketplace itself. Furthermore, if students with lower incomes are accepted to high status universities, they often suffer self-exclusion and drop out because they do not feel a sense of belonging. (Naidoo, Shankar and Veer, 2011) According to Hamilton and Piacentini (2014), being a low-income consumer is not only due economic and material reasons but also due lack of social inclusion. From that perspective, it can be understood that consumers with underprivileged backgrounds encounter social as well as marketplace isolation. They are not a part of the consumer culture of higher education, which might be a continuous reminder of their stigmatization. (Arnould and Thompson, 2005) On the other hand, employment can be the low-income consumer's way out of social deprivation and poverty – given that they are often unemployed because of their lack of access to higher education. (Pugh, 2004)


    Findings show that the private education marketplace is not inclusive to the low-income consumer and will not be, unless marketers become interested in the consumer with the disadvantaged background. It must be understood that market exclusivity is not only the segregation from the marketplace, but is also the segregation from its social aspects, leaving consumers vulnerable. In contrast to private sector, it is found that public education is a public good that does not exclude consumers but has limitations. To conclude; the privatization of education forced the low-income consumer to be excluded from the education market that is viewed as a private commodity instead of a public responsibility.


    Due limitations; it is found that there is a broad research area on private education market, higher education market, the low-income consumer and how privatization of education affect the consumers.

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