Do we offer our students value for money?

On Wednesday morning I attended a HEPI/HEA Parliamentary Breakfast Seminar at the House of Commons on the issue of value for money in higher education. Apart from the fact that it was, amazingly, my first ever visit to the House of Commons, which was really interesting in itself, the event raised a whole series of issues and questions that I have also been reflecting on at some length over the last few months.

One of the points that I had been thinking, and which came through so very clearly at the seminar, is that there are so many different ways of thinking about value for money, and each conversation, or discourse, has to start, almost from scratch, by asking what do we mean. The first question is one of perspective. Value for money for whom? Are we looking at value for the student, for the tax payer, or, as one of the speakers put it, for each of our many different stakeholders – what does it mean to talk about value for money to a potential industrial partner? Another slippage in the discourse comes when we move from ‘value for money’ to ‘values’, and the subtle meanings of ‘value’ in concept such as ‘added value’ (for students, or for partners), or ‘the co-creation of value’. Like so many other terms within debates such as this there is always the ability to slide between different meanings and so to juxtapose elements of very different rhetorical positions.

A standard presentation of the governments discourse on ‘value for money’ (supposedly based on the views of students or their parents) is focused on contact hours, and in TEF3 speak, teaching intensity. This, however, we were reliably assured, is an ‘input’ factor and it is wrong to consider ‘value’ in terms of inputs. Rather value is measured by ‘outputs’, or ‘outcomes’, and the change of the name of the TEF to highlight outcomes was noted as being a positive contribution to the wider debate about value for money. At another point we were told, almost formulaically, that ‘value equals outcomes divided by inputs’ as though this were a mathematical equation through which we could generate a possible ‘value for money’ metric.

Added to this discussion, seeing value for money from the perspective of the student, we were told – almost as a matter of principle – that students today are looking for outcomes. They come to university in order to get a job (although not always a high salaried job) and that we, as HEIs, should invest in the people needed in order to support our students into getting those jobs. Somebody asked about the other benefits of university, including friendships and a more rounded personality etc., and while this was acknowledged, it was noted that these are things we tend to appreciate looking back on our own experience, not something that students go to university in order to achieve. Other factors, such as confidence, skills, mindset etc. were also seen as means for getting that job, or necessary characteristics to prepare students for the more fluid employment environment, rather than specifically as goals students set themselves when considering which university to choose.

What became very clear to me as these discussions were progressing was that nobody was really offering any evidence for the positions they were taking. It may be the case that the majority, even the vast majority, of students seek a university education in order to get a good career. Many, particularly from more disadvantaged backgrounds, may not know what that career might be. Others have very little idea about why they are going, and are simply doing what parents, peers or schools expect them to do. It was noted, very importantly in my view, that there is a real value in having a very diverse sector, in order to recognise, and cater for, the many different motivations of individual students, offering them the opportunity to go to the kind of institution that would meet their particular needs at the time (and the question of credit transfer was also raised in situations where students changed their minds after making their initial choices).

Another ‘value for money’ debate was also raised, albeit with less development and discussion, around the possibility of student support, cost of living, wider social provision, sense of community and so on as the deciding factor, rather than anything specifically related to learning and teaching. The decisions that students make are complex, and can be driven by very many motivations, not all of which can be captured by the idea of value for money.

Finally, therefore, there was an element of the wider debate about the value for money for the tax payer, for society at large, or for specific stakeholders. At this point the HE sector begins to be seen as a whole, and questions about the contribution of the HE sector to economic growth, either regionally or nationally, or contributions to meet the perceived skills shortages within particular industries, regions or the nation as a whole, come into play. This is, of course, a very different kind of debate, but is equally one that tends to revolve around ideas of ‘value for money’. Once again, however, we can also ask about the more intangible contributions of HEIs and the student experience (or research) to society at large, and particularly from an arts or social science perspective, our contribution to well-being, creativity or even the maintenance of democracy. Can any of that ever be quantified in terms of ‘value for money’?

It was a really interesting debate, but it is not one that is going to end when time is up and we all leave the House of Commons to pick up our day to day lives. I am very sure that it is also going to continue to be part of the wider national debate for some time to come, and many different voices are going to add their own penny’s worth to that wider discourse. I do think, therefore, that we also need to have that debate here in Swansea, not just among the senior managers, or even just among the staff. As I hope the discussion above has shown, it is students who are often at the heart of this debate but it is us, academics and managers, who pontificate on what students think or what students want out of their university education. I have been proposing, therefore, the possibility of a series of student debates/seminars over the next few months, on the question of value for money so that they/we can thrash out some of these issues and get a clearer idea of what the real terms for this debate are for the current community of students here at Swansea.

Watch this space to hear more about this debate over the next few months…


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