What’s the value of the university? And who gets to decide?

Recent months have seen the launch of a parliamentary inquiry into value for money in higher education and the barrage of media scrutiny, and calls for action over vice-chancellor pay. There is an increasing reliance on outcome metrics to tell us everything we need to know about higher education, from academic support to students’ experience of teaching.

Wonkhe joined forces with the UPP Foundation to host a policy forum on the value of the university, and – crucially – who gets to decide, on 21 November at the University of Liverpool’s London campus.

Our panel, chaired by Wonkhe’s Mark Leach, featured:

  • Emma Atkins, Education Officer, University of Manchester Students’ Union
  • Janet Beer, Vice Chancellor, University of Liverpool
  • Stephen Isherwood, Chief Executive, Institute of Student Employers

Mark pointed out that the value for money question is one often boiled down to efficiency: the Office for Students is proposing that it will conduct an “efficiency study” on a provider if there are substantial concerns. And elsewhere, value for money issues have been linked to transparency – one proposed solution is that students be provided with breakdowns of where their fees are going.

Debates surrounding contact hours have also been detrimental to the work that universities do: Janet Beer voiced concern about the impact of the value for money conversation on conservatoires and art schools, suggesting that the best answer to the question is that it “depends on what kind of workforce we want, and what kind of value system we want”. To use her example, the number of hours spent in the classroom as a proxy for value for money in teaching would seem to suggest that a 3-hour seminar discussing a 1000-page novel is of less value to students than being read the novel over the course of three days.

“The money is in the metrics”

As for who gets to decide – it’s hardly ever students, according to Emma Atkins. Emma said that the risk of regulating too heavily based on outcome metrics is that providers will start playing to what is being measured: “the money is in the metrics”, rather than in listening to students. Quality could be measured instead in terms of the “wins” of higher education. Stephen Isherwood added that employers also have very little say in deciding the value of the university, and that students overseas are more likely to have links with employers in their home countries than students in the UK.

The panel was challenged by the audience on whether employers should be contributing to the costs of university education alongside the government and students, given the extent to which they benefit from it. Stephen responded that the binary view of students and the government is inaccurate: society as a whole, of which employers are a part, benefits from higher education and employers will argue that they pay their part in taxes.

The latest information on upcoming policy forums will be posted on Wonkhe’s events page.

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