Value for money (VFM) is a slippery concept, and a debate which has become saturated since the growth of a market in higher education.
Recent calls for students to be compensated for lectures cancelled as a result of strike action, highlight the degree to which concepts of consumerism, compensation and entitlement have become a pervasive part of the conversation about higher education in England, including; its purpose, how it should be funded, and who should pay.
Two views on VFM
The recent Higher Education Strategic Planners Association (HESPA) conference included a session on VFM in HE which took a different perspective on the issue, and provoked lively debate. With the initiation of the government’s post-18 review, thoughts from the Planning community sparked by the session could suggest a new way of thinking about VFM.
Andrew Murphy (Chief Financial Officer at the University of London), and Julian Porch (Academic Officer at York University Students’ Union) presented two views of how VFM is being considered in their institutions.
Andrew noted how this concept is affecting a sector which is not ‘awash with cash’, despite the headlines. VFM creates a focus on the challenges of balancing academic considerations and the need to widen participation, with financial sustainability and business concerns. The University of London has a very different operating model from other institutions. It delivers services to the member institutions of the University, including accommodation to their students. The University of London also has a significant transnational education offering, with the majority of its students studying distance courses overseas. Within this context, VFM is an important tool in evaluating the University’s business, and the development of data-rich reporting – which uses KPIs and targets to identify action – is useful in balancing the university’s strategy with the need for sustainability.
Julian provided a student perspective on the issue and noted the unique position of sabbatical officers as a bridge between institutions and their students. Student perceptions of VFM are an area of interest he has explored during his term in office, but he noted that the initial responses to his survey on VFM elicited comments on the prices in the campus supermarket, rather than the wider issues of student fees. A revised survey created a good debate, highlighting that students at the University of York perceive VFM in terms of the variations in hidden costs (and cross-subsidy) between different programmes and departments (i.e. those paid above the £9,250 fee for tuition, registrations, and exams) . For his respondents, fees were not seen as paying for access to a community of scholars or to facilities, but rather as paying for more tangible and immediate services such as printing. The survey responses also revealed an inherent contradiction in the debate on fees. Students showed an awareness of how much contact hours cost, and were able to make statements which compared the value of their course with other disciplines, using monetary measures such as earnings. Yet, at the same time, they disliked higher education being described as a ‘product’, and having a monetary value assigned to it.
The trouble with VFM seems to be its definition. What it means is different for each stakeholder and higher education has many, many different stakeholders. Even if you can define it for one group, the definition quickly becomes fuzzy when applied elsewhere – because the concept is closely tied-up with subjective opinions, personal perceptions, and changing expectations.
At the same time, as a commercial concept VFM is now linked with the development of regulation for the sector, something described later in the HESPA Conference as a ‘category error’. Universities don’t fit a standard regulatory mould or model. They are many things to many people, and finding one way of expressing VFM will never suit a regulator, a student, a parent, an academic, an administrator or a lay-member of council – especially when time is factored in too. So how can institutions respond to the growing need to demonstrate VFM, when those three small letters describe a concept as difficult to pin down as knitting fog?
The HESPA seminar attendees had some ideas. First, it’s about clever use of data and proactive engagement. The data-rich report developed at the University of London suits its business model and, more importantly, opened-up the debate within the institution in a way which is transparent and measurable. Using data which allows stakeholders to engage enables shared understanding of issues and institutional performance, which can help get past different understandings of VFM.
Second, the move to the OfS as a regulator means the sector is expecting to be asked to demonstrate its effectiveness across a growing range of issues. In one institution, talking about effectiveness rather than value for money allowed it to see past ‘money’, to broader ‘business benefit’ as the driver for efficiency, and to take action which helped the institution to demonstrably perform better. If the focus of VFM is effectiveness, rather than a stark financial baseline, it makes VFM part of a wider view of institutional performance, where accountability to a regulator and stakeholders can be more readily demonstrated. It also opens up discussions about exactly what is meant by VFM in different contexts and at different times.
Finally, there needs to be some myth-busting. The media has grabbed VFM as a way to critique the purposes and effectiveness of a university education, while clumsy attempts to market HE have not worked with prospective students or their families. As well as rebuffing the media hype with positive evidence and narratives about what universities are actually doing, it’s also about engaging with students and their influencers, by using the right tools to talk to each stakeholder group in the right ways. Universities recognise that prospective students inhabit a different world, with its own conventions of what is and isn’t appropriate for marketing. By engaging with current students, institutions can avoid social media gaffes, and understand changing needs and expectations, in order to shape information and support for current and prospective students.
Whatever the definition you use, VFM should: help institutions to operate more effectively, efficiently and transparently; provide students and stakeholders with the information they need; allow comparisons with expectations; and, reveal the sector’s true value. If we can develop a definition of VFM that works then may be it does have value in shaping the future of the sector.