We often find ourselves talking about value for money at the Office for Students. This is primarily because one of our statutory duties under the Higher Education and Research Act requires us to have regard to the need to promote it, with value for money being one of the four priorities in the regulatory framework. It is also because when we meet with students they regularly refer to it, often in the context of believing they could get better value from their time at university or college.
What then tends to follow is a discussion about what is understood by the concept of value for money, and at that point views often diverge: for some students it is about the quality and inspiration of the teaching and feedback they receive, for others it is about getting a job when they graduate. Some see it in terms of their whole higher education experience, including the opportunity of getting involved with their students’ union, while others break it down into how much they are paying for each lecture or tutorial.
Welcoming the richness
Given this diversity of perspectives, it is clear that we will not be effective in promoting value for money by trying to construct a single algorithm to account for it, nor by reducing it to something mechanistic. It is a far richer concept than that, and will always mean different things to different people. This needs to be acknowledged, and indeed welcomed.
Students are the OfS’s primary stakeholder, but not our only one. As the regulatory framework makes clear, we also need to consider value for money in terms of the taxpayer. In that context the expression is more likely to relate to the benefits not just to students, but also to the country and the economy – balanced against the amount of taxpayer subsidy.
In developing our approach to promoting this elusive concept, our first step was to commission a report from a consortium of students’ unions addressing what students understand by value for money. We received a huge range of different responses, but the report that was published in March 2018 contained some clear and common themes. For instance, of those surveyed, 94 per cent said that the quality of teaching and feedback was one of the most important factors for them. Teaching resources were also identified, as were getting a job and salaries.
We will now be taking forward the conclusions of that report. We will be doing this partly through our regulation of individual providers where our conditions of registration will ensure a common, high quality threshold for all registered providers. These conditions include requirements that applicants and students should be provided with accurate information about their course and their provider, and also that effective arrangements are in place to provide transparency and value for money for all students and taxpayers.
At the same time we will seek to empower students to make informed decisions about where and what to study. We will want to ensure that all students have a general understanding of what their higher education experience will be like and how much it will cost – including, as our survey highlighted, additional costs outside of tuition fees. Achieving this depends on the provision of information which makes sense to students. We will seek to empower students to make informed decisions about where they study, and strengthen their ability to challenge poor value for money once they are enrolled. Transparency will be one of the ways we will make this happen.
This is still work to be developed and we will be working with our Student Panel and engaging with students and other stakeholders over the coming months to ensure their views inform our response. But our objective is clear: by addressing these common themes, we will have more students reporting that they have received value for money, and that has to be a priority for us all.