Enrolment Models and Considerations

 

When I begin working with a client to develop a course offering, one of the very first considerations I raise is the enrolment model that is best suited to the course delivery. It is such an important early consideration and it is amazing to me that there doesn’t seem to be any written guidance for RTOs on this subject. I would love to see the NCVER do some research into the productivity and student outcomes achieved using different enrolment models.

In this article, I share my experience having reviewed, audited, built, advised on many hundreds of enrolment models and pathways with clients over almost two decades as a VET consultant. My hope in providing this information is that you can give informed consideration to your enrolment model so that it works not only for your business but results in a better and more supported learning experience for students. It is another one of those things in an RTO where we are trying to find that sweet spot between quality and efficiency. This article focuses on the economics of the enrolment process in your RTO operation and not so much on the compliance requirements implicit to the enrolment. I will touch on compliance a little toward the end but only insofar as not to ignore it completely. Here we go.

Enrolment Pathways

Broadly speaking, there are two common enrolment pathways that are used by training organisations. These include:

  • Cohort Enrolment. Where a group of learners are enrolled and commence a course at the same time.
  • Rolling Enrolment. Where an individual learner can enrol and commence a course at any time or at designated entry points.

Let’s look at some common considerations which will hopefully bring out the advantages and disadvantages of the cohort enrolment vs rolling enrolment models.

Recruitment

Recruitment for a cohort delivery often means that we advertise and market a course that is planned to commence on a specific date. You may often here advertisements from the likes of TAFE promoting enrolments for the next semester, as an example. This has some advantages as it allows you to concentrate your marketing spend into the time leading up to a course commencement to maximise enrolments and to ease off your marketing spend in the times when the course is already full and is being delivered. Conversely, using a rolling enrolment will mean that you are spreading your marketing budget over the entire year to generate continual interest and enquiries. This can sometimes be less efficient as you spend a lower amount over a longer duration. This can result in a lower number of enrolment but can often result in a greater cost overall. Of course, if you are recruiting using a rolling enrolment and you currently have no vacancies, you can turn this advertising on and off as needed.

It also can allow you to concentrate your administrative costs in the same fashion. If you are enrolling and hopefully completing a cohort of students at the same time, it can allow you increase your administrative support over these intensive periods of processing enrolments and completions and reduce your admin support to maintenance only during the middle period. Our student management software RTO Data Cloud is designed to facilitate this. You can add and subtract users anytime you like so you are not paying for SMS users in low activity periods. Conversely, if you are enrolling students using a rolling enrolment, you are likely to have a constant need to process enrolments and completions throughout the year.

Students being recruited into a cohort delivery are usually in a life or career transition and are usually more available to undertake the course on a more regular or fulltime basis. Students being recruited into a rolling enrolment are usually already working and are looking for a more part time or flexible delivery. I know, this is a big generalisation, but this is often true.  You can see from a recruitment perspective, understanding the profile of your typical learner for each course is critical not only for recruitment success but for enrolling the right learner into the right course. Understanding the advantages of your chosen model, allows you to highlight these advantages in your recruitment strategy.

Induction

The induction and orientation of students; particularly for longer courses, can be an intensive activity. This can include introduction to teachers, equipment issue, course material production and issue, arranging log-ins’ and setting up communication channels, organising access/attendance arrangements, safety briefing, curriculum introduction, policy induction, et cetera. There is significant efficiency in doing this once as a group rather than doing it over and over again for individual enrolments. A cohort induction also presents the opportunity for students to meet and have this common experience together which can help to establish relationships that will be beneficial as the course commences. Here enters the theory of group development established by Bruce Tuckman in 1965-1977 (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, Adjourning). Cohort induction aids in the group forming (and maybe storming) so that we can get more quickly to norming and performing as a cohort.

Conducting course induction for individual learners in a rolling enrolment can be time consuming and result in inefficiencies. I have observed a number of clients over the years set up online induction programs to allow the student to work through the induction process independently with guidance from the RTO to alleviate this inefficiency. The very clear disadvantage with a rolling enrolment where this leads to the student undertaking the course as an individual is the absence of the group development aspect that is mentioned above. I talk about this more below in peer support.

Peer support

Peer support is where learners support each other with their learning. This might be through working together in small group activities, assisting each other to prepare for assessment, collaborating on projects, communicating on discussion forums, et cetera. This type of learner-to-learner support in synchronous learning (where a group of students are engaging in learning at the same time) is invaluable because it allows learners with different abilities to benefit from each other and enhances the learning experience. Peer support is attributed with resulting in deeper learning of skills and knowledge and in better formation of foundation skills. The more people learn to work together, to communicate, to listen and appreciate the view of others it results in better overall work skills. Peer support aligns more naturally with a cohort delivery model by the basic fact that we have a group of learners all starting and learning the same thing at the same time. This is not to say that aspects of peer support are not possible in a rolling enrolment delivery model, its just that it takes on a different shape and does not usually naturally occur. Let me explain.

Let’s say that we have a rolling enrolment where new students are entering the same course from time-to-time. Think Certificate IV in Leadership and Management where each unit of competency is a separate subject and task and a unit by unit delivery is normal. This means that it is easy for new students to join the course when vacancies are created by withdrawals. These new students can simply join the course at the commencement of the next unit. You can see that this is a rolling enrolment into a cohort and synchronous course delivery. Therefore, peer support is available, and you also benefit from a healthy group dynamic. What if you are using a rolling enrolment into an asynchronous delivery (where students are engaging in learning at different times)? This is where you need to get creative to create opportunities for peer support such as introducing online student forums, using a closed social media group for as a student forum, delivering open tutorials where students are invited to participate and engage, setting up a buddy system where students can agree to work together, etc. These peer support mechanisms can work well but not without constant effort and reinforcement. Also, you will need to have some controls in place to make sure that “peer support” does not overflow into academic misbehavior. There will always be this risk so it must be controlled and mitigated.

Resource efficiency

The planning, procurement, delivery and use of resources in training is one of the significant costs and limitations on the delivery of training. This is particularly true of training which requires access to specialist facilities, major equipment items and resources which are operated by an individual. This alone can be a major deciding factor on whether you apply a rolling or cohort enrolment. Let’s think about some actual examples. Let’s compare delivery at the RTO premises in specially designed facilities as compared with delivery as on-the-job training where the trainer visits the workplace to deliver training. A cohort model aligns better with delivery at the RTO premises and a rolling enrolment aligns better with individual on-the-job training. Consider where an RTO may be delivering training on major equipment such as an excavator. This training is typically one-on-one and is more suited to a rolling enrolment. Also consider where the RTO may rely on a leased commercial kitchen on specific times of the week. This training would need to be coordinated very carefully and delivered as a cohort delivery to maximise the use of the facility in those designated times. Each training product and RTO has different needs and resourcing arrangements and consideration of these will directly inform your selection of the enrolment model.

When you are purchasing resources and equipment in support of a course such as textbooks, consumables, makeup supplies (beauty), uniforms (commercial cookery), PPE as examples, purchasing these in bulk (in support of a cohort) will often give you purchasing power to negotiate a lower cost of supply. Therefore, this can be more cost efficient overtime. Unless you are going to purchase and store, this can be less efficient with a rolling enrolment model.

I should also just make the point here that consideration should also be given to equipment and facility maintenance. If you have individuals enrolling all the time, it can become challenging to schedule maintenance without impacting on some learner’s training. If you enrol and deliver training as a cohort then you can plan for your maintenance and conduct this at a time when there is little demand on equipment which also typically results in greater equipment uptime when the equipment is in demand (think aviation). The benefits of this approach are obvious in terms of managing assets and equipment for greater longevity, uptime, safety and training quality. Equipment and facility maintenance must be planned for and sometimes this can be an overriding factor when deciding your enrolment model.

Training efficiency

Training is delivered by trainers and the cost of trainers is typically the greatest operational cost of delivery. Ultimately, we are wanting to maximise our return on investment from the cost of training delivering. It doesn’t matter if you are a not-for-profit RTO, enterprise RTO, government RTO or a private RTO. We must be able to at least cover our operating costs otherwise we are going backward. So, by maximising the number of students being trained by each trainer we are making best use of our cost of delivery for the services being delivered. Of course, there are many other factors that inform this consideration not least of which includes training quality.

Clients often ask me, is there a benchmark or mandatory trainer / student ratio that must be complied with? No there is not. But, this is often influenced by factors such as the available space, the maturity of the learner, the experience level of the trainer and particularly the nature of the skills and knowledge being taught. If you are delivering knowledge based training in a classroom where you are presenting knowledge, theory and concepts, facilitating discussion, et cetera the main limiting factors is the space and the skill and experience of the trainer. It takes a fairly skilled trainer to engage effectively with a large group. For instance, if the client said to me, they are considering a trainer / student ratio of 1:30 for classroom theory instruction, I would be ok with this as long as the space is suitable and the nature of the training is knowledge, theory and concepts. If the client asked me for a recommendation on the trainer / student ratio, I would suggest a trainer / student ratio of 1:24 for classroom theory instruction and a trainer / student ratio of 1:12 for skills instruction. I think this is the sweet spot. I think 24 students in a classroom is about the limit of most trainers and the 24 divides nicely to 12 and 6 for skills activities as I will discuss below.

But, what about skills instruction? Skills instruction and particularly demonstration performance instruction needs to be delivered at a much lower ratio to achieve the level of supervision and feedback that is necessary to adequately develop a student’s skills. It does depend on the skills being instructed and how you manage the group. I tend to preference a trainer / student ratio of 1:12 for skills instruction. There are many skills where a trainer / student ratio of 1:12 is totally fine. Some examples of this include aged care, commercial cookery, information technology, carpentry, etc. Sometimes it is necessary to give instruction to an even smaller group such as where fine motor skills are being taught, think dental technician, optical dispensing, welding, et cetera. In these instances, the instructor can split the group into two (so, 1:6) and have one group doing a self directed parallel activity for a period of time while the trainer works with the other group of six to focus on a particular skill. Anyway, you get my point. Skills instruction will require a lower trainer / student ratio than knowledge instruction and this needs to be factored into your allocation of trainers and the return on investment consideration. On a quick side note, I suggest a trainer / student ratio of 1:40 for online learning. This number of allocated online learning students gives the trainer enough capacity to provide the required support to encourage course progress and completion. Some people might think that because it is online, that there is no limit, but I think this is total rubbish.

Ok, how is the enrolment model relevant here? Regardless of if we enrol students as a cohort or on a rolling basis, we still need to maximise the number of students in front of  each trainer. In a cohort enrolment model, this is usually fine, at least at the beginning of the course. The problem is, retention. Let’s say you deliver a qualification and achieve about a 70% completion rate over a 12 month course. That means, along the way, we have lost 30% of the students. In a cohort and synchronous delivery model, there is less opportunity to replace those students particularly where there are unit sequencing and classroom allocation considerations. It means that if we started the cohort with 20 students and calculated a 30% return on trainer costs and we lose 30% or 6 students, our 30% margin return on trainer costs is diminished significantly if not evaporated. This is particularly true when most course fees are calculated based on a minimum number of students required to break even. If we fall below that break even threshold, we end up delivering the course at a loss. This obviously will depend on how you have structured your fee collection, keeping in mind the requirement to limit your collection of fees in advance (click). My point here is, in a cohort delivery model, the profit ratio can reduce with students leaving the cohort and sometimes there is little the RTO can do to replace those students in the cohort due to the need for a sequenced and synchronous delivery. How does a new student join the course in the middle or later stages of the course? It doesn’t work and keep in mind, that the cohort still requires allocation of the same trainer ratio, still requires the same classroom, still requires the same equipment, but it is a smaller cohort and regardless, we need to see the course through and deliver on our commitment to those remaining students.

Now let’s give the same consideration for the delivery of the course under a rolling enrolment. If the student / trainer ratio was 20:1, under a rolling enrolment model, it can take some time to build-up to our preferred student / trainer ratio. This is obviously due to the fact that we are enrolling students gradually over time. If we have students that withdraw from the course; unlike the cohort model, we have the opportunity to replace students into the course as vacancies appear. This means that we not only generate a more continuous revenue stream from enrolments, but we maximise the services being delivered from our training investment to the maximum number of learners. Yes, this can be less efficient in the beginning, but once you have reached the target number of enrolments, it is more efficient moving forward. When I explain this dynamic to clients, it can be a bit of a lightbulb moment and often results in them choosing a rolling enrolment model and designing the course around this reality.  There are many things in an RTO operation that you have control over. Students deciding to exit the course early due to something happening in their life, is not one of them. You need to work out how to convert this reality into an opportunity. Using a rolling enrolment is one way to do this. As soon as a student exists a course, it creates a vacancy that we can fill with a new enrolment; therefore we keep the maximum number of students in front of the trainer all of the time, hopefully!

What’s that? I hear you thinking that the success of this will depend on whether the training is being delivered as a synchronous or asynchronous delivery and on the unit sequencing requirements. I agree, read on.

Sequencing and entry points

The design of any vocational education and training course (qualification) must include consideration of unit sequencing. This is 101 course design. A dead giveaway in identifying that an RTO needs help is when I get given a TAS to review and the sequence of unit delivery is straight out of the qualification framework. Seriously, I am not joking! There are many methods of and considerations for selecting a sequence to the unit delivery (maybe another article!). The most common method is what we call “simple to complex”. This involves selecting the delivery sequence of the units of competency based on what the student needs to learn first to lay a competency foundation before they move onto more complex tasks. In my early days, we would refer to this as prioritising the underpinning knowledge and skills. A great example of this are qualifications such as Diploma of Information Technology, Diploma of Aviation (Commercial Pilot) and Certificate III in Light Vehicle Mechanical Technology. Before you can diagnose and repair light vehicle engines, you really need to be competent in using and maintaining tools and equipment in an automotive workshop. Before you can fly an aircraft, you need to have a foundation knowledge of air law, aerodynamics and avionics, etc. The automotive example is a great example because the unit “Diagnose and repair light vehicle engines” has no pre-requisites but it is obvious to anyone that before I can repair engines, I need to be able to use tools. Therefore, the unit on using tools needs to be sequenced accordingly.

So, I point this out because, if your course has a “high sequence burden” such as the above, you can see that a rolling (individual) enrolment would only work where the qualification is being delivered where the student commences from unit one and completes the units in sequence (individually). This is common in pure workplace delivery of apprenticeships in static workplaces. Think hairdressing, automotive technician or metal engineering fabrication as examples of this. If we consider the same sequence limitation in a cohort  delivery (at the RTO premises) and units are being delivered according to a set schedule (calendar), a student  joining the existing cohort would need to commence with a unit that is likely too complex and they would struggle. The only option for this student is to wait for the next course commencement date when they can commence from the start of the course. This is never a successful strategy, telling a person making an enquiry about a course to come back is six months is not a good idea. This inability to commence the student fairly quickly is an enrolment and business disaster. We want to accept that students enrolment (if appropriate to do so) and commence them straight away. That is good for them, it is good for their current or future employer and is good business.

Most qualifications have an aspect of this “sequence burden” although some more than others. Sometimes when the client is determined to use a rolling enrolment model, they may choose to have the student complete a couple of mandatory units upfront individually before joining the cohort. Sometimes just a few units completed individually is enough of a foundation to enable the student to enter the course at any point. I am working with a client designing a Diploma of Counselling at the moment using this very strategy. Using a rolling enrolment, the student will complete two units focusing on ethics and counselling theory via individual study (asynchronous) and after these have been completed the student will join the cohort (synchronous) at whatever unit is commencing next according to the course schedule.  This is a great example of having your cake and eating it too. I call this an individual foundation module and it is a great option if the nature of the units allow this. There are many qualifications where there is virtually no sequence burden or is very low. In this case, you can deliver the course according to a set schedule (giving you all those benefits) and enrol students using a rolling enrolment with entry points set to when each unit is scheduled to commence. Many qualifications in the business services training packages are like this where there is no real interdependence between the units of competency. An almost textbook example of this is the qualifications on Leadership and Management mentioned earlier where each unit of competency can be delivered quite independently without impacting the quality of training delivery or compromising the logical learning sequence.

Is there a necessary sequence required for your training? This is a key consideration in deciding if you can enrol students as a cohort or individually as a rolling enrolment. Do this analysis early and consult subject matter experts in industry to determine if a strict sequence is required. The following is provided as a very broad guide without taking into account the many local considerations that can exist:

  • asynchronous delivery = rolling enrolment (most of the time)
  • synchronous delivery with high sequence burden = cohort enrolment
  • synchronous delivery with low sequence burden = rolling enrolment

Graduation

One often overlooked side effect of choosing a rolling enrolment is that because students are starting at different times, we have students finishing at different times. Therefore, this makes it very difficult to hold that classic graduation event that many of our clients love. Some clients will schedule two graduation events each year just so they can invite students who have completed to come back and attend graduation. Seriously, for some clients, these graduation events are just as important as the actual course. Not having a fancy graduation event is simply not even a consideration. So, if I am describing you (performing arts, fashion, beauty, graphic design), then you may be better sticking with the cohort enrolment model. An alternative is to come up with a nice way to celebrate the graduation of each student individually as they occur, but,,,,, as I write that, I can almost hear some of my clients telling me to wash my mouth out with soap! Heaven forbid Joe, what are you thinking!! Anyway, just food for thought.😊

Compliance

There are so many RTO standards/clauses which touch the enrolment process such as:

  • 4.1 – Marketing
  • 5.1 – Pre-enrolment screening / engagement
  • 5.2 – Pre-enrolment information on services to be provided
  • 5.3 – Pre-enrolment information on fees, refunds and consumer rights
  • 7.3 – Limiting the fees paid in advance of services being delivered
  • 1.2 – Determining the amount of training required for each learner
  • 1.7 – Identifying learner support requirements
  • 3.5 – Identifying credit transfer eligibility
  • 3.6 – Collecting and verifying the USI

All of these will happen (or at least will be commenced) before the student commences training. Obviously the collection and verification of the USI is not technically required until the issuance of an AQF certificate, but the vast majority of RTOs will complete this as part of an enrolment process. I recon I spend about 20% of all of my consulting life just talking about enrolment requirements. It is likely that an RTO will use a combination of different enrolment models each adapted for the unique requirements of each course. Totally fine. I would recommend that you document these different enrolment pathways in your policy and procedure so you can apply suitable quality control to these important processes. You need to have a systematic approach to how you advertise and engage with prospective learners’ prior to their enrolment. You need to have systematic arrangements to supply pre-enrolment information and this should be checked against the standards to ensure that the minimum information is being provided.

You need to build into the process all the necessary administrative checks to ensure these are completed every time. You can (and should) adapt these enrolment processes and arrangements for different learner cohorts such as apprenticeship / traineeship enrolments (funded), fee-for-service short course enrolments, fee-for-service qualification enrolments, enterprise enrolments, etc. Each of these different groups will approach and make their way to training in a different way with different requirements. The most important take away here, map and document the process and get systematic! Develop flow diagrams and written procedures  in support of these different enrolment pathways. Develop checklists and cheat-sheets that the admin team can rely on to ensure they are not missing anything. Structure your documentation/systems to ensure that all of the required information, acknowledgements and declarations are captured during the process. Provide training to your team on the enrolment processes and establish the links with upstream and downstream processes such as marketing and student induction to manage the efficiency with these important internal customers. When we talk about a “systematic approach” this is what we are talking about. If you are interested in a systems approach to self assurance, this article is worth a read (click).

In conclusion

Look, I could have continued writing on this subject for ever. So much to talk about! Hopefully this provides you enough information just to be dangerous. Selecting the right enrolment model is fundamental to so many aspects of running an RTO. The choice that you make can have an impact on the learning outcomes achieved by students and/or the profitability of the services being delivered.

If I were to identify what I think is my preferred enrolment model, I would have to say a rolling enrolment into a synchronous delivery as long as you can satisfy the sequence issues. I think this gives you get the best of both worlds in terms of the quality/efficiency, the peer support, top-up enrolments, et cetera.

I hope this article has sparked some thoughts about your current or planned enrolment model. Always remember that, prior planning and preparation prevents piss poor performance. Do the analysis on your enrolment needs for each course and make the right choice for your students and your business.

 

Good training,

Joe Newbery

Published: 22nd December 2021

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