Rethinking value for money for socially distanced times

Paul Gratrick applies learning from a study of students' perceptions of value for money to university planning for September 2020.

Last year I wrote a piece for Wonkhe about value for money in higher education on the back of a research project I completed at Durham University.

Back then it was laced with Augar, NSS and TEF keywords – simpler times indeed. Since that time we’ve swiftly left the Augar review era and entered the uncertain period of HE in a time of Covid-19.

Among the rapidly changing situation I’ve tried to think about how the lessons learnt from discussions over value for money of yesteryear can be applied to the current and planned provision of higher education.

My research replicated many of the HEPI Student Academic Experience Survey questions but for first year students at the University of Manchester. The main conclusions were that student value for money decisions are significantly linked to:

  • Getting what you were expecting
  • Fees
  • Teaching quality and content

Even in the current situation each of these three factors are, arguably, controllable by any institution, and so how might these be tackled in the coming months?

If you expect nothing you are never disappointed

The Office for Students has stated and reinforced that institutions must provide ‘absolute clarity’ on what students are going to receive come the new academic year, even though many still don’t know.

Following on from other sector bodies the Department for Education recently published their guidance on reopening universities – and while a single approach across the sector would have been desirable, that horse has already bolted with similar but not the same approaches already planned.

Manchester plans to hold all first term lectures online; Cambridge is shifting to online lectures all year; Bolton is aiming to fully reopen the campus, with safety measures in place. All are aiming for some form of face-to-face teaching in some capacity, but there’s no standard format.

The lack of a singular approach is not so much the problem with expectation setting, as the basic communication between students and institutions. The thematic analysis of my research highlighted phrases such as “it is/isn’t what I was expecting”, “they said at the open day…” and “I was told that I would get X.”

Everyone knows that a university can’t offer what they would have done in 2019, not even close to it, and so it’s about how open and honestly you pitch it now.

Manchester and Cambridge are interesting examples as their students’ value perceptions could be impacted by the loss/gain aspect of value decisions. Cambridge has already said all lectures are online for the next year, but should the situation improve the university could theoretically reintroduce some in early 2021, thereby providing a gain.

Manchester is just saying the first term lectures are online, but if the situation persists or worsens they may have to add that the second term is too – a perceived loss.

For Bolton that potential “loss” could be even worse. Even with good safety measures implemented in theory, in practice they may not work as intended. As value perceptions are so strongly linked to expectations, any institution ought to under-promise and over-deliver rather than vice versa, especially when you have zero control over the evolution of the virus and its impact.

However, not overplaying your hand and dialing back the marketing promises will be difficult when places are needing to be filled. Be honest with your current and prospective students, and aim for a return to normal experience during a degree lifetime, rather than selling an illusion now.

That’ll be £9,250 please

In a Mexican standoff around fees no one university has yet drawn the gun and reduced its undergraduate fees for this coming year. Jones et al (2020) found “qualitative evidence of an increase in value for money negativity as fees rise” and so the inverse could prove true with students sensing more value if fees are lower for a Covid campus.

While there are justifiable reasons why fee reductions ought to be the norm and not the exception, with many pointing to the virtual track record of the Open University, in a value for money narrative the fee isn’t always as important as knowing what it is going towards.

From my research conducted in the days of HE yore, 57 per cent of students felt they didn’t get enough information about where their fees went, and this was 73 per cent in the HEPI 2019 sector-wide survey.

Universities could generate a decent amount of goodwill if they communicated how charging students the same £9,250 fee is a good thing during a global pandemic. Students could rightfully ask how institutions are using fee money to deliver effective or new services within a virtual set up, and how institutions are investing fees to benefit future years of study that will (hopefully) be back on campus.

While the cost of teaching online versus in person doesn’t necessarily save an institution millions to put towards new initiatives, students may not see it like that – but that’s not my point here. Providers need to be clear in how the fee money gets spent for these next cohorts, perhaps even more so than in years gone by as students will want that justification if the list price doesn’t change. Saying you’ve splashed out an Zoom Edu license won’t cut it.

TEF yourself before you REF yourself

The third factor that I found most significantly influences value for money in HE is related to teaching, specifically, its perceived quality, content and delivery.

My day job sees me in the middle of a Venn diagram of academics, students, professional services and employability and my expertise is in joining all of that up. As such I’m not going to pretend to know what it’s like to shift a whole degree programme to an online/blended/hybrid model and patronise colleagues currently working through just that.

What I will reinforce is that the previous two points discussed here will contribute to your students seeing value for money in your teaching. They’ll see quality content and delivery with an honest approach, telling them in advance (expectations) how their money (fees) are going to contribute to a recently adopted delivery mode.

It’s not enough to say that the degree is now available online should the Covid situation persist. Current and prospective students are treading water in a sea of education uncertainty right now. Giving them the confidence that your teaching is the right one for them will come from an honest account of what they can expect from you and how you’re spending their fees to achieve that.

No marketing misdirection or generic slogans – just a factual assessment that leaves you the room to over deliver in the long run, and acknowledge that things could change (because they probably will!)

The same goes for my area of work in Careers and Employability. Prefixing anything with “virtual” or “online” won’t cut it and at Liverpool we’re aiming to replicate what we would do in person as much as possible whilst the Covid restrictions remain in place. Clearly articulating this to students will not only increase their employability, it will provide them value and confidence during a time when that is currently harder to find.

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