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New year, old arguments – value for money in higher education

New research from YouGov and The Times opens up some old arguments about value for money. The team make sense of it all.
This article is more than 5 years old

Arthi was an Editorial Assistant at Wonkhe.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The answers you get depend on the questions that you ask.

Higher education policy – like all domains of expertise – is riven with words and phrases that carry a variety of connotations depending on context. And someone attempting to make an argument that backs up a particular ideological stance can use this semantic slipperiness to their own advantage.

What is Value for Money?

Over the past year, “value for money” (VfM) has rarely been far from the headlines – we’ve had a National Audit Office study, and the Office for Students (OfS) commissioned student research into the issue. Both the Commons Education Committee and the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee have had a stab. HEPI published research, a transparency angle and a social angle.

We’re also expecting to hear a lot more about it in 2019. It’s difficult to argue against (who would make the case for less value for money?) but equally difficult to define. The Office for Students has a decent stab as a part of their regulatory guidance, separating out VfM for students – “Students get value for money when they experience the full benefits of higher education in exchange for the effort, time and money they invest” – and taxpayers.

But it is careful to draw out the question of value in broader terms, rather than focusing on a sticker price and some kind of “return on investment”. Some ministerial statements have flirted with this more simplistic calculus, for example in the publicity around the DfE app competition. It harks back to the idea of sticker price as a useful indicator within an open market – an idea that few still have any faith in, and one which will likely diminish further if the Augar review suggests a more planned approach to post 18 spending.

The poll

Do you think too many children in Britain go to university, not enough go to university or the number is about right

  • Too many go to university (40%)
  • Not enough go to university (19%)
  • The number is about right (21%)
  • Don’t know (19%)

In England, universities can currently charge tuition fees of up to £9,250 a year. Do you think this is or is not value for money?

  • Is value for money – the standard of education and the increased wages graduates earn mean it is worth the money (17%)
  • Is not value for money – the standard of education and the wages graduates earn are not enough to warrant the cost (64%)
  • Don’t know (19%)

A poll conducted by YouGov for The Times, and published on January 2nd, sits very much in the instrumentalist camp. It takes the near universal sticker price of £9,250/year, and then cuts and shuts “the standard of education” and “the wages graduates earn” as the things that either do mean it’s “worth the money”, or don’t “warrant the cost”.

The “standard of education” is a spectacularly woolly concept. The standard compared to what? Quality is hard to argue against, but even harder to define. League tables, and national attempts like the TEF, focus on comparing institutions against each other – but the fact the market supports a majority single price would suggest that the measures chosen do not offer useful information for the (near mythical) rational consumer.

Looked at internationally the (world class) QAA judgements would suggest that the UK compares well with other national systems of HE. But if you look at individual student experience, the picture may be mixed – though it is difficult to disentangle personal aspects (did said student actually do any work?) with institutional failings (was the teaching actually up to scratch?)

We’ve been over many of the return on investment arguments in our coverage of LEO data and related releases. Suffice it to to say that the earnings of those who graduated up to a decade ago are of questionable relevance to those starting their study in 2019. Even if you discount the way that the graduate labour market (and the wider economy) has changed in the past and is likely to change in the future, institutions and courses are almost certainly taught in different ways, by different staff, to students from different backgrounds, than they were a decade ago.

[Full screen] [Source data]


The poll asks another question – if the number of “children” who go to university is too much, too little, or about right. Four in ten respondents said that too many go to university, with roughly two in ten saying that not enough go to university, and a further two in ten responding that the number is about right. Roughly two thirds of respondents (64%) did not consider maximum tuition fees to be good value for money, while 17% said the “standard of education and increased wages” of graduates represented good value for money.

[Full screen] [Source data]

Looking at responses by Brexit referendum vote, the most popular answer across Leave voters and Remain voters alike was that “too many children” in Britain go to university, but Remain voters were less likely to say this, at 37% compared with 43% of Leave voters. Remain voters were also more likely to say that “not enough” go to university, with 15% responding as such compared with 10% of Leave voters.

Seven in ten Remain voters said that maximum tuition fees did not reflect good value for money, compared with six in ten Leave voters.We don’t have a cross-tabulation of how these votes overlap with other groups – for example we know that older people are more likely to have voted leave, but we don’t know how this has been controlled for.

Of all the characteristics measured, those who voted Conservative in the 2017 general election were most likely to think that too many “children” go to university, with over half (54%) saying so and only 8% responding that not enough go to university. Less than a third (30%) of Labour voters thought that too many go to university, and 17% considered the number of people who go to university – or at least, their perception of this figure – to be too low. When it comes to voting intention, the results are a bit different: over half (52%) of those who intend to vote Lib Dem believe that too many go to university, compared with 43% of those who did vote Lib Dem in 2017. Frustratingly, the poll does not provide its respondents with any figures on how many young people enter higher education, deferring instead to their assumptions about these figures.

Results by social grade were interesting for their similarities – those belonging to the three more affluent social grades gave very similar results to those belonging to the three less affluent, with around a quarter of both groups saying university numbers were about right, and most reporting that too many go to university. Those of the more affluent social grades were more likely (68%) to say that maximum tuition fees represented poor value for money, compared with 60% of those from the less affluent social grades.

Of all the regions, those in Scotland – where domestic students do not pay tuition fees – were least likely to say that the maximum fee of £9,250 in England was not good value for money – however, this was still over half of respondents at 57%.

Back to the start

All of which takes us pretty much full circle. We could have guessed most of the above already – it’s why May overruled DfE and called the Post 18 review in the first place. The question is whether the sector has the wherewithal to fill in some of the detail – the absence of which allows sloppy polling to fill in the blanks.

There doesn’t appear to be any research that asks whether £9,250 a year for a degree place represents good value for money regardless of the balance of the contribution between student (graduate) and state – surely a missed opportunity for the sector to protect (and justify) the unit of resource?

We’re still pretty much in the dark about the true “costs” of HE for most undergrads – rent, food, books and travel. How many students are going to take a positive value for money message into their twenties if they couldn’t afford it in the first place?

And as long as we have a repayment system whose subsidies only reveal themselves if you are at the end of your career and economically unsuccessful, we shouldn’t be surprised by a negative reaction to a VFM question.

The reality is that the abrupt removal of the “fiscal illusion”, coupled with a decade of escaping austerity and allowing costs on campus to drift up means that the sector is both out of practice, and out of graduate friends. With Augar imminent, it should do its best to find both.

5 responses to “New year, old arguments – value for money in higher education

  1. It would be interesting to also associate whether the general public thought that we had enough doctors, nurses, teachers and the like, with the need for them having had a university education.

    Also, VFM is a long term judgement and can only really be seen decades after students have left education, from both their own viewpoints and those of society more generally. Most students are more concerned about living costs than tuition fees, with the VFM question appearing to be of more interest to the Treasury and some parts of the press.

  2. I wonder if views vary on VfM of £9250/year vary based on how the money is lent (i.e. to what extent are respondents actually factoring in how much students are really paying back).

  3. ” It’s difficult to argue against (who would make the case for less value for money?)…”

    The point is this: even thinking in these terms is wrong headed.

    Sure, there are lots of pointless courses that should be closed down (rather than being subsidised by the tax payer). But arguing the relative “value for money” between, say, a historian and an engineer is completely idiotic: that is not the right way to think about universities and subjects at universities.

    The problem is, the current climate makes it very difficult to draw a distinction between, say, History at Cambridge and basket-weaving at …

  4. Education free at the point of delivery would mean its users would not need to talk in these terms. Let the state worry over this, and let educators and students do what they do.

  5. The reality is that ‘don’t know’ should be around 99% but everyone wants to have an opinion. It’s a system 1 response to a system 2 question.

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