Parts of the whole: LEO and the value of public value

The recent OfS report into student perspectives on value for money was, primarily, an exercise in determining how students understand the idea of value for money. The report reached an interesting consensus – overwhelmingly students value what could be described as key input measures (the quality of teaching, assessment and feedback, learning resources) over the output measures (job market performance) that they directly benefit from.

To listen to Sam Gyimah introducing subject TEF and promoting LEO data on the Today programme the other week, you’d rather have expected the opposite. There, the language was all about students as rational economic actors – making decisions on where and what to study based on their own long-term benefit. One telling slip – with the minister talking about graduates earning less than the threshold required to begin loan repayments – gave credence to the narrative that much of this is about ensuring value for money for the Treasury.

From pillar to post-18 review

The OfS’s regulatory framework, of course, sees value for money for students as one of four primary regulatory objectives – alongside support for success, a high quality experience and progression into employment. Quite what value for money would be if not those three things – two of which could reasonably now be described as what students see as defining value for money – is not made clear.

  • Objective 1: all students are supported to access, succeed in, and progress from, higher education
  • Objective 2: all students receive a high quality academic experience, and their qualifications hold their value over time in line with sector-recognised standards
  • Objective 3: that all students have their interests as consumers protected while they study, including in the event of provider, campus, or course closure
  • Objective 4: that all students receive value for money

I would argue that these are not notably ambitious goals. HEFCE, after all has reliably achieved all four (and many more) since 1992. To look at competitor countries, all four are reliably achieved in Scotland at much less (objective 4) cost to the graduate. None of these goals deal with value for the wider public – again HEFCE’s goal (to create and sustain the conditions for a world-leading system of higher education which transforms lives, strengthens the economy, and enriches society) does so.

And examine too the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding remit: we see value for money for graduates and taxpayers under consideration together, and a parallel focus on skills could be seen as the glimmering of a conception of value for wider society, or at least the commercial end of it. It would be tempting to see these as three separate priorities that could be balanced and traded off but, as usual, the reality is far more complicated.

A Michael Barber treasury

A serious look at the wider idea of value for money would have to encompass the concept of public value. At least, this is what Michael Barber argued in his November 2017 paper commissioned by the Treasury – “Delivering better outcomes for citizens – practical steps for unlocking value“.

For Barber, the engagement, participation and experience of service users is a part of one of four pillars that support public value. It’s mashed in with public and taxpayer legitimacy within the Engaging Users and Citizens pillar – the others are Pursuing Goals (which mainly covers strategy), Managing Inputs (covering costs and data) and Developing System Capacity (very much the “responsive organisation” stuff).

To seasoned Barber-watchers this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Similar composites define the Efficacy Framework (Pearson), the Framework for Productivity Reviews (from “How to manage a government…”) and even the Assessment Framework from his PMDU days. There’s certainly a platonic ideal of a value for money framework up there somewhere – Barber himself notes in the Treasury report that the Public Value Framework bears a relationship to the Framework for Productivity Reviews via the work of Mark H Moore, the US researcher who coined the term “public value” as a public sector equivalent of “shareholder value”.

Public Value Framework 2017 Framework for Productivity Reviews 2016 Efficacy Framework 2013 PMDU Assessment Framework 2004
Pursuing Goals Results Outputs Quality of planning, implementation and performance management
Managing Inputs Input Planning and implementation
Engaging Users and Citizens Citizen Commitment Evidence
Developing System Capacity Organisational Health Capacity to Deliver Capacity to drive progress


None of this is, in anyone’s eyes, rocket science: set an appropriate goal, measure evidence of progress against it, and ensure the delivery system is structured and resourced in an appropriate way based on this. It’s as true in government as it is in publishing – but in conversations on policy and process we often fail to ask questions around whether the goal is correctly described.

Back to VfM

So what does what we now know about student perceptions of value for money tell us about the wider idea of public value from HE? It could be argued that the needs of wider society, as employers, taxpayers, and beneficiaries of both knowledge- and skills- driven growth and wider cultural activity, should be set above any measure of immediate or individual value to current students.

This, of course, goes against the last eight years of HE policymaking, which has developed a funding and regulatory system that has arguably lost its focus on wider societal goals. The post-2012 English funding model is no longer better value for taxpayers than the previous model, if we look long term. And we’re far more likely to hear an argument about how universities benefit wider ideas of citizenship from Universities UK than the government.

This state of affairs has been routinely justified by recourse to value for money for the (notional) student – even the very name of the Office for Students attempts to cement this impression. And this notional value for money, with a focus on graduate earnings, has driven interventions – in what was once called teaching quality enhancement – via TEF and now subject-level TEF.

All of this is designed to get “better” information to students to inform decision making, and thus shape the sector into a market to… what, exactly? To drive this conception of value further into the sector? To allow students the opportunity to study courses leading to employment that was slightly better paid than the national average in 2013/14? Choosing a course based on likely future salary is fraught with assumptions about the state of a particularly difficult job market which currently values certain skills above others – to use historical data is to assume that nothing will change, and that the skills that are valued now would be valued forever

How prospective students use information

Back in 2014, HEFCE released a report into what use prospective students made of information. Rejoicing in the unappetising title “Advisory Study and Literature Review” it is nonetheless one of the most fascinating things HEFCE ever published. Though it explicitly warns government away from using “nudge” style psychological tricks to influence what is and needs to be a very complex and hugely personal decision, it offers a great deal of succor for those seeking to argue the opposite.:

We suggest that a successful behavioural approach to the provision of information can enable people to better understand their own needs, and enable them to develop a more informed approach to the complexities of HE decision-making.

The continued emphasis of output measures in preference to input measures is a behavioural approach to influence the behaviour of applicants. The government actively wants students to make decisions based on output data – in the TEF and elsewhere – rather than more personal criteria. How much earning potential do you get for your money is a fair question, but it is not the same as asking do you get what you want from your money.

In each of the models Barber postulates, direct user benefit is one criteria amongst many used in determining public value. Maybe it is time to look again at the whole rather than focus on one part?

One response to “Parts of the whole: LEO and the value of public value

  1. Thank you for a really interesting blog post David. As the lead author of the unappetisingly named Advisory Study and Literature Review (we didn’t get a say in the title) I also very much appreciate you suggesting that our report was one of the most fascinating things HEFCE ever published. I’m not sure that we intended to warn government away from using “nudges” in the context of Higher Education (HE) entirely though. Rather we sought to emphasise that in the context of HE choice, nudging is not as straightforward as in some other policy contexts, where the behavioural outcome or shift that is sought is more clear cut and objectively a good thing (such as giving up smoking or eating more fruit and veg). In the context of an individual’s choice about HE, what is the right choice for one person, may be not be right for another. We certainly also emphasised caution with nudging people to apply to particular HE institutions and instead emphasised the need to help ensure that prospective students are better informed decision-makers and are as empowered as possible to make choices that satisfy their own personal goals. This might mean that the focus should not solely be on encouraging prospective students to apply, but rather on the wider issues of how they navigate the HE search and application process. We know that the process of applying to HE can be overwhelming and involve a number of uncertainties – many are not taking advantage of the full range of information that is available. So, there is certainly the potential to nudge prospective students to reflect on and broaden their choices. This could help prospective students to avoid merely defaulting to the norms of their peers. This is important because when prospective students consider and apply to more institutions, they are more likely to get accepted by an institution that is a good fit for them; this is vital for student retention. As an organisation recently appointed to the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Framework we at CFE Research are hoping to have the opportunity to explore the application of behavioural insights further in in this context, so hopefully many more reports that may be of interest to you will follow.

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