Peter Mandelson is making a return the HE fray later this week, with a speech to be delivered at the HEPI conference on Thursday. Now Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, the former Business Secretary made headlines in 2009 with a speech at the CBI:

As students… pay more, they will expect more and are entitled to receive more in terms, not just of the range of courses, but in the quality of experience they receive”, he said. “I hope… that they become pickier, choosier and more demanding consumers of the higher education experience… teacher quality and the quality of the teaching experience is going to become more important.

It set hares running at the time, but of course, Mandelson was neither the first nor the last minister to frame students as consumers to help ensure universities offer “better value for money”. The above extract could come from any minister responsible for higher education since, and you can be sure that the current minister – also speaking on Thursday – will echo the sentiment.

Warning signs

At the time, Mandelson’s comment was read as ground-laying ahead of a likely rise in tuition fees. But maybe HE should have genuinely heeded the warnings.

Less than a month later, Paul Greatrix reacted amusingly to BIS’s development of the consumer concept at the launch of what became the Browne review – trailed as “food labelling” that would “flag up teaching hours, career prospects and seminar frequency”.

Ahead of his time, he asked: “how is it going to be decided what is red and what is green?”.

But it’s doubtful that even Paul could have imagined the complex system of medals in TEF – just one of the tools that Jo Johnson said last year would “promote value for money”.

VfM WTF?

Understanding value for money in higher education can be difficult, but a good place to start is to contrast how it is understood within the sector and outside of it.

Inside universities, it’s almost too easy to debunk. You can argue that multiple meanings and motivations make “value” impossible to meaningfully measure. You can argue that the total “money” that is paid varies according to earnings and the rules of the loans system. You can argue that “value” is only created in later life. You can point out that in many cases the money isn’t paid by the user, or that the benefits are to wider society, or that it distorts student behaviour, or that what you get is difficult to compare or that, anyway, it’s all neoliberalism.

One of the often-used arguments against this agenda centres on deferred benefits and impacts. “Value is created when students realise their potential”, goes the argument – or it’s created when students “benefit from their education in later life”, or even “when they earn more”- all of which render the measurement of VfM meaningless.

But the argument misses the point. Of course, I only get “value” from a TV if I watch it, or “value” from a gym membership if I bother to go. But that doesn’t change the fact that unlike a gym or a TV purchase, university is a public endeavour jointly funded by the taxpayer and the student. Both groups have the right to demand standards in the service being offered. Both groups also have the right to ask that regulation ensures that their money isn’t being wasted.

One of the classic public policy mistakes of universities in their response to massification and marketisation has been simply to sneer. But VfM gets deployed by policymakers not just as a fig leaf in return for high fees, but because it’s popular – right across society, there is something simplistically positive about getting good value for money and something viscerally unpleasant about the feeling of being ripped off.

Ministers know this. The public wants it. Being part of society rather than above it, spending oodles of its money and engaging with half the population in the endeavour requires engagement with it, not dismissal. And accepting the desire for value for money as a legitimate concept is central to understanding how government policy and the new market regulator will develop over the next decade.

Making contact

One thread running through ministerial pronouncements over the years has been about contact hours, and for every HE minister, there’s an apocryphal story about cabinet colleagues bemoaning how little their nieces and nephews seem to get from their universities, and how poor it is when they get it.

We can debunk ways of measuring it all we like – and much of the material arising from research into students’ perceptions of VfM has been aimed squarely at overcomplicating student concerns about contact hours. It’s true that intensity and quality matter just as much as the number of hours, and it’s also true that providing resources and support for independent study is a key component too.

But students feel that they’ve been sold some decent contact with decent people. Ministers know this. Students and their parents want it and are consistently amazed at the lack of it. Every bit of sector commentary sounds like an excuse, every argument about better managing expectations just cheating.

Why can’t they just get on and do it?

The transparency revolution

But if all of that sounds too easy in principle and too hard in practice, then perhaps it’s better to focus on what OfS might do in this area, given that ensuring “that students receive value for money” is one of OfS’s four core objectives.

Ministers have wielded the spectre of a “tough new regulator” as the solution to all sorts of ills from VC pay to the snowflake avalanche – yet for all the moaning about regulatory burden, the limited powers given to OfS in HERA, coupled with the sheer scale of the task of developing a regulatory framework and getting everyone on the register means there’s a material risk that it will disappoint against expectations.

In the foreword to last November’s consultation on the OfS regulatory framework, Jo Johnson promised a “transparency revolution”, and the detail suggested that all students be sent a statement akin to that accompanying council tax bills detailing where their money is spent. Research suggests that this will only really work if students can compare and contrast where their institution spends in comparison to others and can see cross-subsidies.

But in the final framework, this has been relegated merely to a behaviour that could indicate effective management and governance, and the likelihood of imposing a format that might make it comparably useful is low given the commitment to institutional autonomy.

What happened to student contracts?

Last July when announcing TEF3, Jo Johnson rightly suggested that the contracts between student and institution be strengthened, setting out “resource commitments, contact time, assessments, support and other important aspects of their educational experience”.

Being explicit about courses will protect students from not getting what they were promised, and if tuition fees really do fund lots of other things, being clearer about their promises on both academic services (advising, assessment and feedback, libraries) and non-academic services (like sport, welfare and social spaces) shouldn’t worry us.

If a university policy sets out standards for assessment return times that aren’t met, why isn’t this a commitment in the contract? However, in the final framework, this element seems to have disappeared, with registration merely requiring institutions to set out how much hassle they’ve found CMA’s unfinished guidance and students who missed a term’s worth of lectures over industrial action left wondering if a contract would be worth the paper it’s not written on.

Efficiency and data

One of the powers OfS can deploy is an “efficiency and effectiveness” study in the management or operations of a registered provider to “ensure that providers are delivering value for money for students and taxpayers”. It can also work “collaboratively with providers” to “benchmark efficient performance and highlight areas of good practice, benefiting students, providers and the public purse more generally”.

This sounds fine, but as any health or education minister will tell you, efficiency is a funny old goal – people love it in principle, but not if you’re closing their local hospital, or restructuring their counselling provision. Savings might end up funding future buildings instead of current provision. And when you’re running regulation designed to level a playing field for private as well as traditional providers, it’s not immediately clear whether it would be students or taxpayers that would benefit from improved efficiency over outputs.

There are other things that OfS might do. If a new data strategy is to be useful, it could take on those companies cheekily reselling largely publicly available data, open up data sets and analysis tools to governing bodies and student representatives to enable them to drive their own comparisons and benchmarking exercises. It could refocus the NSS to be broader, developing satisfaction measures on VfM whose teaching quality equivalents are now broadly accepted as legitimate and a driver of practice.

Stop, look and listen

But just resisting VfM as a concept, or merely predicting OfS’s next regulatory moves won’t cut it. The clue is in the signal, not the noise. Those that are still baffled by OfS as a concept should have a read of Michael Barber’s Three Paradigms of Public Sector Reform, published by McKinsey in 2007.

There’s lots in there – and we can hear it throughout recent reforms. “Now students pay the bills… it is more important to look outwards: to build relationships with students by providing excellent teaching, support and value for money, and taking advantages of the freedoms of the new regulatory system to offer new courses and modes of study to meet student needs”, said Sam Gyimah at the launch of OfS. Michael Barber said last year:

It is innovation in the sector – among new entrants and incumbents alike – that will drive increased participation and improved outcomes for new generations of students

Much of this stuff gets ignored or dismissed, but what if it’s right? What if the trick is to look out at students instead of to regulators, and to do the right thing before government and its regulator if forced to require you to do things that they say are right?

Listening to students isn’t hard if we really want to. They don’t want to be infantilised, but they do want their university to show some care. They know independent study matters, but they want more and better contact. They know that educational and career outcomes take at least two to tango, but they want universities to be better at their side of that bargain.

Where it goes, and where it comes from

Students want to know where their money goes, they want more of their money to have some direct benefit for them, and they want to be protected and supported if something goes wrong.

If a university encourages people to live on campus in their first year, students are amazed to find that they’re allowed to profit substantially from that – it’s a hidden top-up fee. Where a module leader designs a programme and the core text was written by them, students are baffled that they’re allowed to sell them a copy. Where keeping fit or eating healthily is beyond the financial reach of large swathes of the student community because sports or catering is an income stream, students are saying they want universities to become just as strategically aware of the financial situation of its own students as they are of institutional finances – with institutional encouragement to keep student costs under control.

Why wait to be told to research the total costs of participation in a course where clever curriculum design might help reduce the costs of books or equipment?

Not-so-optional extras

And it’s not so much that other charges are hidden – CMA fixed that – it’s that students are amazed that so much that they thought would be included costs extra. Whether that’s printing, books, “optional” field trips, translation costs for a doctor’s note or student clubs and societies, the current incentives encourage charges to multiply and hide when students need the opposite.

If Michael Barber is right that higher education experiences go beyond the course “and include art, drama, music, sport, volunteering, political activity and, not least, enduring friendships”, why don’t we work harder to ensure that the costs of these things are included or down- rather than waiting to be told to do it?

We’re not perfect when it comes to teaching either. Too few students are getting the feedback they need to justify academic judgment and help them develop. Too many students complain in free text comments of mumbled Powerpoint slides in crowded rooms. Too much innovation depends on recruitment and novelty instead of systems and incentives. Why are student-led teaching awards an annual event instead of a weekly routine? And why wait for a performance management framework when we could root this out ourselves?

There are those that would argue that higher education is a bargain. That £9,250 is a small price to pay for the benefits to the individual and wider society. That even more people should go to university. They’re probably right. But existence is based on belief and belief is the foundation for permission to take the money and do what we do.

This can’t just be about getting the marketing message out, or our story across, or about better “managing” (lowering) expectations. I’m guessing that in the long term delivering value for money is really about something else – working hard to work out what students and the public value about education – and developing systems and structures and rewards to deliver it.

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2 responses to “Universities should take back control of the VfM agenda

  1. Much to applaud here but, as ever, too many uses of generic terms such as “students this…” or the “public that…”. IF the sector wants to be diverse both in terms of its types of institutions, and maybe especially its “types” of students, then we need to examine VfM from many different social and economic perspectives and not just those from commonly used – but largely pointless – generalisations. Sadly, Ministers seem to be wholly fixated on the perspectives of those “generalised groups” to which this piece repeatedly refers, and therefore continue to miss the point.
    Come on everyone, diversity within the student population is a reality, and greater diversity a goal… or it isn’t. We all need to wake-up to ensuring we debate such issues as VfM in ways which recognise and reflect diversity and do not just stuff them under the academic tutorial carpet.

  2. Oh, lord.

    The monetary value of something like education can never be determined- not in a way which is both meaningful and capable of being universally applied. There are too many variables; and the customer demanding value for money is also the process through which value is created; the customer is, you could argue, also the product whose value is to be determined, and the outcome whose value is to be judged.

    If we think of what we do as providing value for money, we’ll be working from a model which simply doesn’t fit any type of education. We’ll also find ourselves, as the tide of neo-liberalism recedes, judging what we do in terms that the wider world no longer thinks are relevant.

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