This article is more than 4 years old

Higher education needs an answer to the value question

Debbie McVitty argues that the sector needs to grasp the nettle on making claims for the value of higher education.
This article is more than 4 years old

With all the sound and fury over Augar, it’s easy to forget that there is an independent review of TEF going on. Indeed, as former universities minister Jo Johnson rather plaintively pointed out in a Commons debate, the Augar report had very little to say about TEF. Yet the recommendations of the Augar review and the existence of the TEF are all part of a policy climate in which higher education is having to confront questions of “value” to an unprecedented extent.

In response to the Augar review Johnny Rich, Sarah Stevens and Andrew Boggs, among others, have written persuasively, and often movingly, about the limitations of graduate salary data in making a meaningful assessment of the value of higher education. At a recent HEPI conference universities and science minister Chris Skidmore said that any assessment of the value of higher education should include social value as well as economic value, a comment that will no doubt be welcomed by the sector.

Reason to value

These commentators are, of course, technically correct – there is all kinds of evidence available on the wider social value of higher education, and what right has the man in Whitehall to judge over a student making a choice about their future anyway? But standard defences of value are like bringing a knife to a gun fight. They frequently either rely on the power of individual stories of personal transformation, or on general statements such as “graduates are more likely to volunteer”, dismissing the grounds for questioning the value of higher education.

Yet these questions are not disappearing; if anything they are proliferating. Witness last year’s Commons education committee report on value for money: “Better information on graduate outcomes must lead to a greater focus in higher education on outputs and outcomes. Higher education institutions must be more transparent about the labour market returns of their courses.” The centre-right think tank Onward in a report published earlier this year said, “the bottom 10% or so of [higher education] courses are showing limited economic value, and it’s not clear they’re generating any other value that would justify the amount we spend on them.” The annual HEPI/Advance HE student academic experience survey is widely referenced as evidence that, when asked, the majority of students do not consider themselves to be securing adequate value for money – in the 2019 survey only 41 per cent of students agreed.

In considering value, higher education has to answer two questions. The first is the dinner party question: if my child has gone to university and only has six lectures a week, just what is it that we’re paying for? The question may be grounded in ignorance of the specifics of the higher education endeavour, but it is also a reasonable one, especially in challenging economic times when parents may be making considerable sacrifices to support their child at university.

The second is, if the economic returns to higher education are genuinely variable and can neither be guaranteed, nor predicted accurately at the individual level, nor are in the control of higher education providers, and we are uncomfortable with locating value in economic returns in any case, what are our grounds for the generalised claim that higher education is worthwhile, especially for those individuals with lower social and economic capital who are not backed by family support? Even more so if it turns out that the social returns to higher education are equally variable and equally influenced by pre-existing social and economic background.

Questions of value are not confined to the world outside universities. Respondents to our recent Wonkhe 360 survey expressed anxiety about the ability of universities to offer a clear narrative on the purpose and value of higher education to an increasingly diverse generation of students. Some had concern about the ability of students to gain value from higher education and others spoke of the tension between students’ social and ethical values and their transactional approach to higher education. More nuanced than simple money-in-money-out calculations, certainly, but tapping into essentially similar concerns.

Few would disagree that it is legitimate to ask universities to evidence their value, make themselves accountable (to students, their families, and the public) and to strive to deliver teaching excellence, but many disagree about how this can be done authentically, and in alignment with academic values. The answer, I think, lies in how we understand and talk about teaching and learning. Which brings us back to the TEF.

Dimensions of teaching excellence

The architecture of the TEF picks one aspect of teaching excellence – student outcomes. While there is every reason to value student satisfaction, retention and employability, and these may be useful signals to indicate the health of the learning environment, they capture much that is not in the control of higher education providers, and capture it well after there is scope to make an intervention. Useful but insufficient – and less reliable the smaller the student cohorts involved.

There are other ways of thinking about teaching excellence, and the marketing literature exemplifies the input-led approach. State of the art facilities, engaging programme design, a well-stocked library, comprehensive academic support and a lively programme of co-curricular activity – these supply the conditions for value to be created, but they can’t guarantee it.

As the HEPI/Advance HE student academic experience survey demonstrates, there is a close alignment between perceptions of high-quality teaching and perceptions of value. In higher education, securing teaching quality generally looks like professional development and recognition of teaching staff, support for pedagogical scholarship and innovation, frequently involving students as co-creators, and the development of a community of expert practitioners.

Support for the principle of the TEF is rooted in the understanding inside universities that teaching practice flourishes when measures to raise the public profile of teaching create the incentives to invest in pedagogic development. Yet so much of this work takes place within a community of experts talking to one another inside and between universities – the public has only minimal understanding of what teaching expertise looks like in higher education. So simply pointing to the existence of a community of practice fails the accountability test.

Meanwhile, the most reliable proxy for educational gain we have – student engagement – has fallen out of favour, possibly because it does not fit the policy narrative of university accountability very well. On the face of it it makes very little sense to base judgements of teaching quality on whether students themselves are showing up and putting the work in. Yet students that put in the effort to their learning will inevitably gain greater value from higher education than those that do not. Moreover, frequently the conversation about teaching excellence stalls at the barrier of student lack of interest. If students are determined to be “instrumentalist” and care most about getting the grade with as little effort as possible, can universities really be held accountable for that attitude?

These students are rubbish, bring me better ones

Any coherent defence of the value of higher education has to be located on its effect on students. You can have the shiniest buildings, and the most expert staff, but if students are not persuaded their effort is worth it, they won’t get the value. What can no longer be assumed, as one of our Wonkhe 360 respondents pinpointed, is that students show up already convinced of the full range of possibilities of the value of higher education and, I would add, prepared to take on trust the capability of the academics who are educating them to deliver that value. Students need to know both that their effort is worth it, that those who are educating them believe and can articulate why it is worth it and, perhaps, that they themselves are worth it. Fear of failure and low self-esteem can be a powerful motivator to instrumentalism, perhaps more so than the consciousness of the investment of money, though the latter is easier to talk about.

It’s also easier to talk about grades and jobs than about the more abstract value of higher education, which could be why some students think grades and jobs are the point of it all. I personally like the idea of “powerful knowledge”, as advocated on Wonkhe and elsewhere by Paul Ashwin, and Amartya Sen’s “capability” approach, which has inspired Melanie Walker, among others, to argue that higher education increases our personal agency, choice and freedom. I also like the idea of professionalism and the potential for leadership that “graduateness” invokes.

All of these ideas speak to enhancements to individual’s potential to influence the world for the better, to shape careers and take on work they find meaningful and purposeful, and bring creativity and imagination to workplaces and communities. They are developmental rather than absolute, and they incorporate both social and economic value. But the specific basis of the claim for value is arguably less important than the encouragement offered to academics and leaders of learning and teaching to identify the appropriate claim for value for their institution, subject, or programme of study, to design it into curricula, and then to find ways to evidence and advocate for that value in ways that are meaningful to students and to the world at large. It’s only a hunch, but I wouldn’t be surprised if by doing this work, universities would also see that much-desired uptick in satisfaction, retention, and employability.

The TEF is taking up time, resource and desk space in universities across the UK. What if all that effort was going into, well, demonstrating teaching excellence, value and accountability?

5 responses to “Higher education needs an answer to the value question

  1. The question of the value of HE is very complex.Perhaps the ultimate ( but unproveable) test is what value a HE course adds to a particular student compared with that student leaving school and spending the same amount of time in the workforce. This then links with the specific course which the student has taken. Many HE courses in the ” professional” domain are essentially training courses rather than general education and provide knowledge and expertise required for the particular profession but do they really equip students with the usually desired skills such as critical analysis etc or were the students bright enough to be able to develop such skills anyway as they matured? In the generalist degrees of humanities, social sciences and science, the question of what value is added over a 3 or 4 study year period ( compared with the same student being in the workforce) is even more acute. Not sure what TEF offers on this.

  2. By way of postscript- perhaps a more fundamental question is how well-equipped academics across the various disciplines really are to ” add value”. If you look at what students are likely to need to be sucessful in the future( including perhaps more self-employment), do academic staff really have the expertise to train/educate for this future? Their environment, employment conditions and modus operandi do not seem to be a good basis in many cases for ” adding value” to students.

  3. Excellent post.

    Value needs to be calculated in terms of meeting Aims. The Robbins report of 1963 had a very prescient summary of this:

    “To begin with aims and objectives – what purposes, what general social ends should be served by higher education?

    The question is not a new one; and the answers have been many and various. But of one thing we may be reasonably certain: no simple formula, no answer in terms of any single end, will suffice. There is no single aim which, if pursued to the exclusion of all others, would not leave out essential elements. Eclecticism in this sphere is not something to be despised: it is imposed by the circumstances of the case. To do justice to the complexity of things, it is necessary to acknowledge a plurality of aims.”

    The report then goes on to identify “at least four objectives essential to any properly balanced system”:

    1) “instruction in skills suitable to play a part in the general division of labour”;

    2) “what is taught should be taught in such a way as to promote the general powers of the mind. The aim should be to produce not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women.”

    3) “the advancement of learning…the search for truth is an essential function of institutions of higher education and the process of education is itself most vital when it partakes of the nature of discovery”;

    4) “the transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship. … to provide … that background of culture and social habit upon which a healthy society depends. This function, important at all times, is perhaps especially important in an age that has set for itself the ideal of equality of opportunity.”

    If the current government responsible for HE in England gave as much emphasis to 2), 3) and 4) as they give to 1), we would be in a very different place. Perhaps also a better balance between the benefits of 1) not just to the individual but to society as a whole (we all benefit from having competent doctors, nurses, engineers, architects, social workers, even accountants and lawyers) and the cost of meeting aims 2), 3), 4) would enable a more appropriate social contract between the student and the state than a flat rate £9.250 per year fee?

  4. Right now I think the value of HE is to undo the damage to critical and creative thinking down me in compulsory education. To turn our students from sheep into our future leaders and gate keepers – ask questions of society and the state. There is always a personal development gain, especially for those from WP backgrounds.

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