One of the OfS’ core priorities will be to ensure that all students receive ‘value for money’ from their ‘higher education provider’. Value for money is enshrined in the regulatory framework for higher education that the Office for Students will operate. Value for money is also a key student concern. In a survey of Students’ Union election candidate manifesto pledges last year, ‘value for money’ was the second most mentioned issue.
Despite this, the definition of ‘value’ and ‘value for money’ in higher education is contested. Some believe that it is about the quality of the student experience itself, while others focus on outcomes like the ‘graduate premium’. While the focus tends to be on the home undergraduate fee, the OfS also has a responsibility to ensure value for money for postgraduates, for international students, and in relation to other fees and charges levied by a provider.
What do students really think?
Funded by OfS, a group of SUs led some research into what students think. The purpose was not to definitively answer the question of what ‘value for money’ means in higher education but, rather, to explore value for money from the student perspective. Do students feel they are receiving value for money? Do student perceptions of value for money evolve as they go from school to higher education, and then into the world of work? What can higher education providers – and the OfS – do to help improve the value students perceive they are getting from the considerable investment they have made in higher education?
The work shows that students are concerned about, and not confident about, the value for money they are receiving, either from their tuition fees or other charges levied by providers. The headline is that only 38% of students think that their tuition fee for their course represents good value for money, and the percentage is similar (39%) when we look at students’ perception of the other fees and costs incurred during their studies. This isn’t really news- it’s similar to HEPI’s conclusions last year- but we also know that concerns become more acute for different groups, but do ease when considering overall investment in higher education. The national debate will focus on home undergraduate fees and the review, but the survey demonstrates that students are worried about where funding goes regardless of whether they are home undergraduates that have taken out a loan or not; and that they are concerned about efficiency, cross subsidy and transparency regardless of the wider design of the student finance system.
When considering ‘cross subsidies’, students feel least comfortable with their tuition fees funding teaching on other courses, wider research unrelated to their course and provider management costs (in this order). It is not surprising that students are more comfortable with their fees being spent on provision that directly impacts them, less comfortable with centralised costs and even less with provision related to other academic subjects. But results do suggest that not knowing where money goes or not being able to compare expenditure is the biggest issue that vexes students. Active consideration should be given to developing transparency that makes sense to students, uncovers inefficiency and encourages providers to offer better ‘value’ whatever the fee (and whoever it is paid by).
The full cost of study
24% of students do not feel that they were informed about how much everything would cost as a student, with the main factors cited are the costs of accommodation, books and paying for extracurricular activities. The research demonstrates that the sector still has some way to go in being able to appropriately prepare students about the total cost of participation in higher education. This is not just about information or external maintenance support – some of these costs are within providers’ control, so consideration should be given to the way in which these might be reduced at every level, from reading lists to accommodation costs. This is more acute for students from a widening participation background and could also be an issue for access and participation planning. I am not convinced that providers should be able to profit from their own charges and services to students given their dominant market position.
Provider quality measures – quality of teaching, fair assessment and feedback, and learning resources – are the top three factors that demonstrate that a provider offers good value for money. These measures come ahead of those directly focusing on student outcomes, such as having access to industry connections or securing higher earnings than non-graduates. This is likely to be because while the responsibility for achieving outcomes is shared between students, providers and others, only the provider is responsible for its quality. It would appear that a simplistic link between course ‘price’ and a basket of the extrinsic factors would not help students to believe they had value for money.
Students have a broad conception of value for money. This includes being concerned about inputs as well as outcomes; the full range of charges that a provider levies; and what is included and not included within the ‘fee’. And there is a strong sense in the comments that there are hygiene factors – where dissatisfaction is related to inputs and quality, that need to be addressed before students focus on motivator factors such as outcomes. It is also clear that given students’ fees fund more than just ‘tuition’, they need to understand expenditure on academic services, non-academic services, and cross subsidies.
Free text comments in the research suggest that students are passionate and engaged in the issue of value for money. They have strong opinions and interesting ideas that could be applied by the government, the OfS and providers. This is crucial, as this agenda develops, that students are engaged as partners in ongoing efforts to improve both actual and perceived value for money – and that students are able to scrutinise and influence where their money is going. And the sector should take steps now to act on the research, lest (as in other sectors) the regulator has to step in with something draconian.