Looking for value for money from OfS

The Office for Students (OfS) has published its “value for money” strategy, setting out how it will meet its duty in the Higher Education and Research Act (“to have regard to the need to promote value for money in the provision of higher education”) and its resultant objective – that “all students, from all backgrounds, receive value for money”.

As predicted and signalled, OfS does at least recognise that VFM means lots of different things to lots of different people. The question is whether students – for whom said office is “for” – will feel better about VFM than they do now as a result of the work. I’m not optimistic.

Now that’s what I call regulation, volume one

Back when OfS consisted of Nicola Dandridge, a DfE loan laptop and a hotdesk at HEFCE, almost the very first thing it did was commission research into students’ perceptions of value for money through a group of SUs – and the research is repeatedly referenced in the document. That work found that just 38 per cent of students agreed that fees for their course represented good value for money, with HEPI/Advance HE’s annual student academic experience report finding similar numbers. So the need to act has been obvious, and urgent, for some time.

You would think then, that having had eighteen months to develop an approach, that there would be new, clever, regulatory work at both sector and provider level to drive up that 38 per cent figure. You’d be wrong. Instead, the “strategy” reads like the track listing for an OfS “Now” Album. “Almost everything the OfS does is about ensuring value for money in English higher education”, says the intro – before retrofitting a bunch of existing activity into a VFM box with decidedly mixed results.

In my dreams I have a plan

Over 90 per cent of students responding to the 2018 OfS survey felt that the quality of teaching, assessment and feedback are very important in demonstrating value for money, and 81 per cent identified learning resources, such as library and IT services, as very important. So the provider registration process and the TEF “deliver” value for money.

Plenty of prospective students are not fully aware of what their educational experience will involve, and can also be surprised by extra costs – affecting their view of value for money. So registration condition C1 (compliance with consumer protection law) will “deliver” value for money.

Being able to see how their fees are spent is important to students- a significant majority (88 per cent) of respondents to the OfS value for money survey said that seeing a breakdown of how their provider spends its fee income would be helpful in assessing whether it provides value for money. So condition E2 – “adequate and effective management and governance arrangements”, with its “suggestion” of providing info to students on where fees go – will somehow “deliver” value for money.

Condition F2 on student transfers will deliver value for money. Condition B3 on student outcomes and employment will deliver value for money. Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC) data will deliver value for money. You get the gist. It turns out, as if by magic, that the regulatory framework (published 28 February 2018) was the response to the VFM research (published 14 March 2018) all along. What a stroke of luck!

My favourite straw-grasping moment is the assertion that “the level of fee that students pay and the terms of any borrowing they use will affect the value for money of their education”, so “we make sure that providers do not charge fees that exceed the maximum levels allowed”. Not only will that be news to international students and postgrads (the Office for UK Domiciled Undergraduate Students strikes again), but it’s not immediately clear that having a limit on price makes people feel better about what they’re getting.

Ain’t it sad

What’s most interesting about the “strategy” is where it chooses to ignore or overlook what students said in that research. Additional costs levied by providers generate significant dissatisfaction – but there’s little in there to address them. Accommodation costs loom large for students when thinking about the VFM of their overall experience – again, nothing.

We know from meetings papers that OfS’ own student panel wanted the strategy to focus on outputs rather than outcomes – but all we get there is TEF and NSS. Teaching intensity is important to students but it’s nowhere to be seen as a measurable metric. There’s precious little on things like graduation fees or uniform costs or student support services or assessment feedback or the cost of the gym. And when things go wrong – almost nothing at all on how students would raise a VFM issue either individually or collectively.

Students want estimates of how much taking part in university will cost – nothing. Over 80 per cent want to compare the costs incurred by their course compared to similar courses at other universities. Nothing. Being able to compare your university’s expenditure on different things with other universities? Nothing. Asking providers to demonstrate steps taken to reduce unnecessary student costs? Nothing.

What’s sad about all that is the other thing the research told us vividly is that when – and only when – students are happy with the outputs do they go onto value the breadth of the outcomes. This isn’t surprising. The washing machine in my house has provided years of value in multiple ways that all outstrip the initial cost. But if it doesn’t work, or doesn’t do what it said it would in Currys, or leaks, I’m bound to think it was bad value for money – whatever the price. Getting the VLE working or the heating fixed or a timetable with no clashes or somewhere to sit on a Tuesday lunchtime, it turns out, is the gateway drug to considering the wider value of HE to the individual and society. But you’d never know it from reading the plan.

On securing value for money for funding from providers, we just get a retread of HEFCE tactics – which look increasingly odd when you’re allowed to spend tuition fee income on profit in a private provider. And perhaps inevitably, there’s little in there on value for the taxpayer – the silent message being “that’s Augar and the government’s problem, not ours”.

That’s too bad

Here’s the thing. If you’re developing strategy, you want your tactics to achieve your outcomes. All the tactics in this strategy – around public information, transparency and regulation – are already in use.

Registered providers are meeting the baseline threshold, and they must be meeting the transparency duty to have got onto the register. Home students already don’t pay more than they should, and providers had to demonstrate compliance with consumer law advice to get onto the register. Yet still only 41 per cent of students agree that their course was value for money.

So how on earth will doing more of the same change 59 per cent of students’ minds?

Maybe the aim isn’t to change the minds of all 59 per cent – but curiously for a regulator so obsessed with outcomes, it has notably failed so far to say where it does want to get to. The strategy says it will measure student and public perception of VFM through “polling”, although it does so in a notably separate section to NSS. which we’re assuming means that there won’t be any provider level VFM measures – interesting given that a VFM question was in the postgraduate NSS pilot that OfS ran earlier in the year. And at sector level, over on the “Key Performance Measures” page it still says the target is “in development”, adding that “we expect to specify this measure during 2019”. How daft of us to assume that the measure would form a part of the published strategy.

I wouldn’t have to work at all, I’d fool around and have a ball

The sad thing is that doubtless many providers will be breathing a sigh of relief at the absence of a provider level measure, but in the medium term the failure to shift that needle meaningfully will be a problem. We might not like their definition of it or their framing of it, but students do have strong feelings and views about VFM, and they’re pretty negative. A mass higher education system means a significant – much more significant than in the past – both personal and collective investment in higher education. So if they carry negative feelings about “value for money” through into their twenties and thirties, we can’t expect to be surprised when that manifests itself at the ballot box and through politicians.

Put another way – if we think what we’re doing is valuable, we can’t bat off every student or public concern about VFM by telling they are thinking about it wrong, and we can’t wait until students are reflecting at the end of their life to convince them that it was worth it. We really ought to do it now.

2 responses to “Looking for value for money from OfS

  1. Great article, illustrating how far OfS still has to go on this one. Two factors that are not mentioned though might be very relevant to the VFM debate.

    Firstly, we don’t have differential fees. £9k a year gets you a degree irrespective of the cost or quality of the provision. An engineering degree from a Russell Group university may look better value than an arts degree from the local modern university. How could a degree that costs £2k to £3k a year to provide and leads to a job as a barista ever look like good value for money, however excellent it may be as a learning experience? If all air fares were averaged out, which would be better value – flying to Paris for £250 or flying to Auckland for the same figure? This isn’t an argument for creating a true market in fees, but for seeing students’ perceptions of VFM in perspective.

    The second factor is around the perception that 18 to 22 year olds (still the predominant group) have of the value of £9k. Very few will be used to managing such sums, and it may seem that universities could do much more and much better with the resources available to them. Those of us who have worked in HE know that although there’s always some scope for greater efficiency, most institutions are working pretty close to the limit most of the time. How that can be demonstrated to the average student is a challenge.

    Any mention in the Strategy of the cross-subsidy between teaching and research?

  2. OFS’s strategy devotes several pages to big questions which are difficult to solve and not so much to the smaller things directly within its remit, ie the direct costs of its own activities and the compliance costs that it imposes on the system it regulates. For colleges on the OfS register, the direct cost of OfS works out at an average of £70 per higher education student (almost 1% of the tuition fee they pay; many charge less than £9,250). The compliance costs involved in adhering with 26 regulatory conditions and dealing with weekly letters containing new instructions are hard to calculate but if it is really true that “almost everything OfS does is about ensuring value for money in English higher education” then they really ought to do the estimate.

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