Survey data tells us that students remain satisfied with their overall academic experience but are unlikely to perceive their degree as good value for money.
As the chart below shows, value for money perceptions have taken a hit since £9,000 fees were introduced, according to Student Academic Experience Survey (SAES) findings, published by HEPI and Advance HE. Over the same period, though, students’ overall satisfaction with their studies has remained fairly constant.
HEPI/HEA SAES multi-year dataset
Office for Students (OfS) research on value for money, published in March, suggests that “provider quality measures – the quality of teaching, fair assessment and feedback, and learning resources – are the top three factors that demonstrate that a provider offers good value for money”. A narrative centred on value for money is emerging that implies poor value for money perceptions mean poor provider quality. If providers are of poor quality, it is bizarre that the same students who report poor value for money also report satisfaction with their overall academic experience in SAES.
The 2018 SAES shows an uplift in perceptions of good value for money, albeit only a 3 percentage points increase. For some reason, the SAES publication no longer contains information on overall student satisfaction. So, using 2017 data, I ran regression models to test the impact of OfS’s three “top” provider quality measures – on both student satisfaction and value for money perceptions.
Value for money is as unexplained as it is undefined
To identify independent variables, I used factor analysis on questions relating to each provider quality measure (each provided one component with an eigenvalue greater than 1, so in each case that was used). For “teaching quality” and “assessment and feedback” it was straightforward to identify a series of questions appropriate for factor analysis. Learning resources were taken to mean timetabled sessions (their quality and frequency), ability to benefit from independent study and access to academic staff outside timetabled sessions.
Running one model with satisfaction as the dependent variable and one with value for money as the dependent, I tested the impact of the provider quality measures. The regression suggests the provider quality measures explain just 17% of the total variance in students’ value for money perceptions, which essentially means that students actually don’t judge value for money based on these measures. When it comes to satisfaction, though, the provider quality measures explain 42% of the variance.
The fact that provider quality measures don’t explain half the variance in satisfaction is a reminder of the breadth of the student experience. That they explain so little of the variance in value for money perceptions suggests this notion in government and OfS that value for money perceptions are a proxy for teaching quality is nonsense. Yet, OfS responded to this year’s SAES by saying it “clearly signals that there is more to do to ensure that students are satisfied with their higher education experience.” With no student satisfaction question even asked in this year’s SAES, value for money appears to be the health check of the sector. Which is concerning, given that the above analysis demonstrates it is an inaccurate measure of the sector’s quality.
We’re all taking care of our number
ING, the investment company, once ran an ad telling us that we spend our working life taking care of our number. This was in the 2000s – when things had never been better – and the number was the value of the pension pot we each needed to retire comfortably.
Millennials – who feel like things can only get better – are taking care of a very different number; their student debt. Value for money does matter, because of a fee system dependent on government loans and substantial student debt.
The sector has almost unanimously defended the current funding system in response to the post-18 funding review, bar advocating minor tweaks such as reintroducing maintenance grants or lowering interest rates. The government has been clear that the current funding system brings with it an expectation of marketisation that inevitably leads to questions of value for money – for both taxpayer and student. Yet still, we talk about education for education’s sake and academic pursuits, almost in the same breath as unironically defending a fee system introduced based on a graduate premium in the job market. Our students’ notion of a university experience changed when the fee system did, but we still talk as if it’s the 20th Century, demanding institutional autonomy in a way that appears protectionist.
Value for money is a pretty rubbish way to judge the overall quality of a university. But it still matters, especially in a funding system such as ours. It is dangerous for value for money perceptions to become a proxy for quality but we are in a bind of our own making. We have lost legitimacy to question this interpretation of value for money by rejecting the oversight that comes with fees – all the while happily benefiting from them. If we want to tell a story to the government about students satisfied with their academic experience, we need to also be able to tell students a transparent story about how we spend their loans. Being well funded doesn’t matter all that much if we’ve sold out our reputation.
With thanks to Nick Hillman at HEPI for sharing the SAES dataset.