Redefining value for money in post-pandemic times

In the absence of a steady career ladder and predictable returns for graduates, Zahir Irani says the HE sector will need to rethink how it delivers value for money

Zahir Irani is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University Bradford

Delivering value for money from higher education needs some work. For years, the sector has been judged by quality of experience and graduate salaries, taking no account of regional differences. As long as the facilities and contact time matched up to the brochure and “graduate jobs” kept on delivering higher salaries, the case for HE was considered solid.

But if we’re only thinking in traditional terms of value for money for students, then many of the old foundations of value have been eaten away as the sector evolves. Most immediately and obviously by the pandemic (the loss of face-to-face learning, the restricted campus experience), but more generally by the changing world we live in.

These include a weak graduate employment market and more scepticism among employers and the public towards the value of traditional education versus student debt. No steady career ladders for graduates, no rolling conveyor belts, no reliable development plan leading to promotions. HE can only be a door to a larger range of possibilities, to a more diverse landscape of employers, smaller firms, fast-moving enterprise.

Changing times

So the sector needs to be clear in its own thinking about value for money and restate what it really means in a post-pandemic world. HE doesn’t want to be stuck with being judged on old criteria and expectations we can no longer meet.

Value for money should be rooted in how HE has particular relevance in a post-pandemic world. The importance of demonstrating social relevance might have been in the mix for a decade or more but the past year has shown why it’s necessary rather than just a “good thing” to have or do.

The role of HE also needs to be about meaningful long-term change – to the sustainability of our way of life, to “levelling up”, to wellbeing, to help create more resilience in the national infrastructure – not just vague contribution.

One of the greatest contributions HE can make is building resilience and character among graduates, not just seeing them as consumers but helping them become able to cope with sudden and potentially prolonged shocks.

I used to embed “shock” into my teaching. I would set my MBA students a task and then turn off the power, forcing them to do their research old school: go to the library and then come back and present using a whiteboard and pieces of paper. Students need to be able to see “work-arounds” when things dramatically change and a quick solution is needed.

Local connection

Universities need to make more of their local presence and networks, making sure that they are aligned with their local and regional development needs.

Localism will have an increasing number of benefits for students, plugging them into employment opportunities, contributing to local developments via social enterprises, and working with small businesses as well as making them more aware of local problems and realities. Local means more specific, real-world connections, hitting the ground running and not the vagaries of big-business recruitment policies.

Entrepreneurship should be made more explicit as a rewarding option for students from across all disciplines. HE can offer access to training and early years support for students who want to start their own business.

The pandemic has only contributed to a deficit in the kinds of social skills and personal skills around communication and team-working that employers are demanding. So there will be a need for supporting students with their lost learning in terms of both educational and social catch-ups.

Value for money means reassuring applicants – and their parents – that their HE package includes positive kinds of challenge, taking young people out of their digital, social media bubbles and into situations where they need to be assertive, responsive, form relationships with all kinds of different personalities, with people from different backgrounds and deal with adversity.

Value for money means being hard on grade inflation. Depending on assessment decisions for the 2022 entry, it’s quite possible that next year’s cohort may have never sat a national assessment. The use of teacher-assessed grades for another year won’t help in ensuring consistency of treatment over the years. Both graduates and employers gain from making sure the currency of degree grades holds its value.

An essential basis of credible value for money for the future will be transparency around fees. That means being open about finances and how and where funds are being spent: what’s needed to support the sustainability of the institution; what it costs to create the particular student experience being offered, and what planning needs to be done now to support the students of the future.

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