Reviewing and proving the value of degrees

Julia Buckingham fleshes out the UUK launch of measures to help providers tackle low value courses.

Universities in the UK have a strong track record in delivering high-quality courses that support students to become successful, work-ready graduates.

Satisfaction rates among students and employers are high and evidence shows higher education is a valuable investment for individuals, government, and the public.

However, one challenge consistently leveled at the sector has been how to define value for students and how to address concerns that some courses offer poor value.

The outliers

While the overwhelming majority of courses are high quality and good value, for some time now the government has displayed a strong interest in tackling outliers, those courses that are deemed ‘low value.’ It is also in universities’ interests to address this. Prospective students are able to access more information on courses than ever before when deciding where to study, and in this challenging economic environment, government and taxpayers are rightly interested in the value of courses that universities are providing.

A shared understanding is essential to ensure we are all working towards the same goal in addressing this challenge. But what exactly do we mean by ‘quality’ or ‘value’ in higher education? And what is the best way to tackle the minority of cases where courses may be ‘low-value’ or ‘low quality’, however that is defined.

The value of quality

These terms quality and value are often used interchangeably but reflect very different aspects of higher education and, therefore, how they are measured. One approach, that Universities UK has taken, is to clearly set out the distinction between quality and value, and what is meant when referring to both. In this we see:

  • Quality is objective, looking at how well courses are delivered and based on shared standards for what a good course looks like, such as those set out in the Quality Assurance Agency’s UK Quality Code for Higher Education. This includes measures such as student satisfaction, outcomes from external reviews and support and facilities provided to students while they study.
  • Value is trickier to define. Perceptions of value will depend and vary on who is making the assessment, be that students, graduates, employers, or the government. Any benefits will be relative to costs, monetary and non-monetary, and often involve a subjective judgement. Measures here are broader, ranging from the likelihood of graduates entering high skilled employment or life satisfaction five years after graduation, to positive impacts on productivity of businesses in which graduates work and positive civic and community engagement of graduates and universities.

What does this mean for identifying and tackling ‘low-quality’ or ‘low-value’ provision and how can universities strengthen their role in this?

Beyond metrics

Regulators and funders already monitor providers’ ability to meet quality measures around course design and student support, with measures such as high skilled employment and earnings of graduates factored into the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework, and freely available to prospective students through the Discover Uni platform for example. Universities UK is working closely with government and regulators to ensure that metrics used for these purposes are as accurate and useful as possible.

Beyond regulatory and funding requirements, all universities scrutinise the performance of courses they offer through internal processes, considering how learning opportunities and outcomes for students from a diverse range of backgrounds may be enhanced.

As part of these ‘portfolio reviews’, universities consider a range of measures when assessing the value of courses, from outcomes for students to alignment with strategic missions and goals – for example supporting local economies or public sector employers – or ensuring financial sustainability of courses.

Learning from the best

There is clearly an opportunity for the sector to bring this knowledge together, learn from each other, and increase transparency around best practice in these internal processes, and the opportunities they provide for tackling ‘low value’ and ‘low quality’ provision.

This is why Universities UK is launching the development a charter in England for enhancing portfolio review processes to tackle low value or low-quality courses. This will:

  • demonstrate the sector’s commitment to consistency and transparency in portfolio review processes, with a focus on providing high-value and high-quality sustainable courses
  • highlight and share best practice where universities are currently identifying and acting on ‘low-value or low quality’ courses
  • provide guidance that universities will be expected to follow in identifying and acting on ‘low value or low quality’ courses, including appropriate use of metrics and rapid actions to take

As this last year has taught us, collaboration is essential for managing change and facing challenges effectively as a sector.

Students and the public need reassurance that there is a consistent approach across the sector in assessing the value of courses as is the case with quality and standards.

As autonomous institutions universities will decide how they achieve this, and approaches will reflect the diversity of universities and students across the sector. However, the development of this charter will help to support universities in ensuring that review processes are as strong as possible in tackling courses where value or quality may be an issue.

4 responses to “Reviewing and proving the value of degrees

  1. I am keen that as part of this process we are truly able to see ‘beyond the metrics’ to recognise the many ways in which value is created – often in ways that are locally resonant and context-based. I wrote about this with colleagues on WonkHE earlier this year, and would implore us all to ensure that alternative positions on value remain live in current debates. https://wonkhe.com/blogs/what-value-and-whose-values-he-should-celebrate-our-intangible-assets/

  2. I agree, Liz and would suggest that the Intangibles Methodology we created provides a means to get underneath and make transparent that which matters in the HE context. This is not to say that metrics don’t matter, but there are many aspects of our world which are hard to quantify and may be at risk of the McNamara Fallacy.

    https://www.invisiblegrail.com/2019/07/25/navigating-the-mcnamara-trap/

    https://www.enhancementthemes.ac.uk/evidence-for-enhancement/defining-and-capturing-evidence/the-intangibles-beyond-the-metrics

    Fiona Smart PFHEA
    Edinburgh Napier

  3. My colleagues are spot on. There is a risk, not just in HE, that we emphasis value on criteria which can easily be
    measured yet there are many aspects of the value of a higher education experience which do not boil down to quantitative proxies e.g. resilience, confidence, creativity, sense of belonging etc. The American Sociologist, Daniel Yankelovich wrote the following in 1972 “Corporate Priorities: A continuing study of the new demands on business”. Although he was not talking about University education, his comments seem very pertinent:

    “The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.”

  4. This is another argument for leaving universities alone. “Thanks for the money, we can do everything else”. In itself, arguing for cooperative development of best practice among providers, it simply ignores that the providers compete and have no incentive to cooperate except in two areas. One is in access-for-all matters such as student visas. The other is to take actions that reinforce the cartel wall that protects the existing providers from further competition and further scrutiny. And yes, employment and income aren’t the only reasons to study. It is great to have cultured conversations with the other people waiting in line at the JobCentre. It is the hierarchy of needs. To enjoy anything else, you need to make a living first. Finally, attributes like resilience, creativity and so on are essential to succeeding in any kind of work, as a conversation with employers will immediately reveal. They are not alternatives to employability, they are an essential part of it. University courses should focus more on building these skills and less on the technical material beloved of their teachers.

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