Like me, I’m sure that there are but a few key dates in your diary each year. There’s Easter Sunday, the FA Cup Final, birthdays of loved ones, and of course the publication dates for TEF, the NSS and (for the first time next year) the Graduate Outcomes Survey.
Much like the regularity of a solar eclipse, there may also be an education review every once in a while to marvel at and avoid being blinded by. All of these are occasions not to be missed and shared with your nearest and dearest. My annual NSS fancy dress party is a hoot – 2019’s theme was “come as your TEF rating”.
Metric and league table publications are a party that everyone is invited to, and commentators across the sector have weighed in on the value for money debate. It was good to see the perception of value for money on the increase in this year’s HEPI Student Academic Experience Survey – up to 41 per cent for a very good/good rating from 38 per cent in 2018 (and 35 per cent in 2017). Teaching aspects such as overall quality and course content, as well as facilities/resources were the most significant factors in giving a good value rating, with tuition fees the most significant factor for a poor rating.
Students’ views of value
Recently I asked the same HEPI questions, and others, to first year students at the University of Manchester as part of a research project into perceptions of value for money in higher education. I repeated this twice in the first semester to see what the value for money perceptions were like at a local level and how (and if) these changed over time.
In mirroring some of the HEPI questions I found that 66 per cent of first year students at Manchester gave the institution a very good/good value for money rating at the start of term (September), with this falling slightly to 62 per cent at the end (December). While this was much higher than the national average at both points, the reasons for assigning the scores were still the same: teaching quality/content, facilities and fees. The HEPI survey showed that 73 per cent of students felt that they hadn’t been provided enough information on how their fees are spent, compared with 57 per cent from my research at Manchester. More students knowing how their fees were spent may have led to the better overall perceptions. Similarly, only 4 per cent of first year Manchester students said that their experience so far had been worse than expected, whilst 13 per cent reported this in the HEPI survey. Getting what you expect is important, and it is worth noting that since this research has taken place, Manchester has made details of how the home undergraduate fee is spent available to all students.
In defining value as part of this research it ultimately came down to a very subjective level with several factors involved and a net/loss judgement. Assigning value isn’t a simple prescription, although we calculate the judgement very quickly. It is based upon our unique experience of the world, expectation management, prior purchases and the transactional process itself, and ultimately do we gain or lose something in the process. The students as consumer debate is for another time, but the commercial language used here applies. Value is down to individual assessments, but it can be managed from the vendor side with clear and regular communications about what is on offer and what the customer benefits and gains. But Augar is a once in a lifetime event, and league tables are only published once a year, and so how do you regularly show the value for money that your institution provides in between the metric cycles? There is one university department that tends to sit right across the student experience, from prospectuses and open days to graduation and beyond into alumni life – the careers service.
An overlooked source of value
A university’s career service has a significant part to play in developing the employability of its students and graduates. Careers teams encounter students in several guises across the student journey, and this can be from individual interactions with careers service staff, or the student Career Coaches that we employ here at Liverpool, to broader en-masse delivery. This gives them the air time to speak with students about their degree and the value it is providing. Increasingly career and employability work is embedded into programme delivery, and this only enhances the space in which the value of a degree can be explored and realised as part of the academic programme, rather than dealing purely with the technical aspects of graduate recruitment and tired DLHE data showing where previous graduates went.
From these interactions careers services collect real-life stories and examples of how, through their studies and university experience, students and graduates are transforming their lives. With good links to alumni teams, a careers service can implement graduates into their work to show the benefits of hindsight and the impact that an institutions graduates are having (and the value they gained). Other departments don’t have such regular contact with students and graduates in order to stitch these two groups together.
The value for money narrative isn’t going away, but leaving it to the metric timescales leaves a void within which prospective and current students may not understand the value an institution will give. Expectations need constant management, and a careers service is well positioned in any university given their pervasive nature and integral part of the metrics themselves. They can bridge the gap between metric publications and drive the value narrative – and if they aren’t already then they really should be.