Vice chancellors are paid too much, universities are awash with cash, and it’d be more efficient if people did vocational training instead.
We know the narrative by now, and it contains enough grains of truth to mean it shouldn’t just be ignored. Yes, some vice chancellors do seem to be paid a relatively excessive amount and through questionable processes. Yes, the sector has been largely shielded from austerity. And yes, for some tasks it may be cheaper to train people on the job with practitioners.
Obviously, if you dig a little deeper – beneath the hostile headlines, strident speeches, and tempestuous tweets – things are a bit more complicated. How does the pay of senior leaders compare with other sectors? How many universities have cash to hand? And whose children are we hoping to educate in this manner?
Sceptics such as the economist Bryan Caplan, of George Mason University, see higher education simply as a signalling mechanism for the job market. Students jump through hoops to collect the badges that impress employers. Those who sell the badges – universities – are incentivised to dish out as many as possible as easily as possible.
But, what’s usually missing entirely from these debates is all the other stuff. In the obsession with fees, costs, and pay there’s no mention of happiness, creativity, autonomy, well-being, belonging, identity, connectedness, or meaning. Are these other outcomes valuable? I’d say so, but – and here’s the catch – they’re not value-able. Meaning is harder to measure than money, and the latter is already in a handy numeric form.
The deceptively sweet and simple economic concept of “value for money” (or VfM) has become the topic du jour. Often this narrative mistakenly equates VfM with efficiency, in the style of Adam Smith’s pin factory. If only we could break down learning to the smallest units required by jobs then we could deliver it “at scale” and “at pace”. There’s an app for that, right?
Of course, such logic leads us to forget what it feels like to learn that way, and what kind of person, or society, such processes produce. Another famous economist, Karl Marx, had some strong views about such things. Speaking at our recent policy forum, Jane Robinson of Durham University called for a more nuanced view of value for money, one focused on outcomes – not outputs.
The argument here is not to ignore money and efficiency, but also not to be too myopic about such things. It’s necessary not sufficient, a means not an end. Money is an output, not an outcome. So, in a week where the sector can look forward to being bashed with the magic value for money stick, here are five benefits that HE delivers that you probably won’t hear about in the headlines.
1) Giving less able students a better life
The much-touted social mobility game is currently rigged. Who your parents are influences how you do at school, which influences where you study, which influences the job you get, which influences how you’re able to support your kids – and repeat. Some people get snakes, others ladders. And higher education can contribute to this, selecting the most able (who happen to be from the wealthier backgrounds) and sending them off into the most lucrative jobs. This is clearly suboptimal for social mobility. But, recent research from America by Heckman et al. finds that, unlike the financial benefits of higher education, non-financial outcomes are relatively greater for lower-ability students – who may not earn as much on graduation but are less likely to be on benefits, depressed, or have low self-esteem. Achieving such outcomes for those people seems pretty valuable to me, and should help the national bottom line in the long-run too.
2) Making friends
University is also a chance to broaden your social circle, providing a wider and more diverse circle of friends. Students are forced out of their comfort zones to interact with a broad range of people in-person, not just online. It’s a bigger pond than school. Andrew Norton, of the Grattan Institute (an Australian think tank working on higher education), told me that:
“Campus-based higher education is surviving the rise of online learning technologies, and for good reason as it’s a way of meeting potential friends. In Australia, university-educated people report having more friends and these social networks play a role in other non-financial benefits of higher education, such as better health”. Even people who don’t finish their course say making friends and connections was a benefit.
3) Helping parents to enjoy retirement/broaden horizons
It’s not a well-publicised point but many parents are secretly counting down to the bitter-sweet moment where they send their little darling off to university. We’re working harder and longer than ever before, being a full-time parent for eighteen years takes its toll – don’t we deserve a break at some point? Parents can’t wait to “get a new puppy or go travelling” after their eldest flies the coop one senior university leader told me recently. Outside this cosy 2.4 children vision, there’s a clear benefit to whole families broadening their horizons. At a recent school governor conference in Hackney one head teacher spoke of some disadvantaged parents who wouldn’t dream of travelling South of the Thames, and how accompanying their children on a school trip to a gallery there was incredibly eye-opening for them. Imagine if their child then ended up studying in another city, let alone country.
4) Service learning
The idea of students and staff volunteering locally is well established in the UK, but unlike in the US, this has tended to be ad hoc and separate from the university. David Watson’s 2011 book The Engaged University highlights the important, self-empowering, and impactful nature of volunteering, community service learning, and community development partnerships. It’s hard to measure and won’t generate obvious economic benefit, but the time is right for a renewed focus on such civic activities. Institutions need to be mindful of enabling rather than controlling such activities, and also of telling different audiences a persuasive story about the benefits it brings.
David Brooks’ book, The Road to Character, talks about people having two natures – one focused on external success, wealth, career and status. The other, a more internal urge to be and to do good. Universities are a place where students get to develop both natures, but again, only one is easily counted. The over-egging of the “student as homo-economicus” omelette risks ruining everybody’s lunch. Universities that help their students to be thoughtful, empathetic and humble, as well as successful and famous, will be good value for anybody’s money.
Time for a more valuable debate
Jonathan Grant, of King’s College London, told me:
The modern view that universities are factories for skilled labour and intellectual property is damaging and counterproductive. For a generation, this is the line that university leadership has offered governments in the quest for more funding and support.
The real question now is whether the sector can change the narrative, to remind the public what matters as well as – not instead of – money, and how the sector can help to deliver that too. A simple utilitarian, transactional, and marketised conception of higher education won’t be sufficient to get us – individually or collectively – to where we want to go to in the future. It also describes a dry, cold world, on that is devoid of joy and wonder. In the words of John Henry Newman:
The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already.