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What value and whose values? HE should celebrate our intangible assets

The value debate is an opportunity to shift established ways of thinking. A learning and teaching project in Scotland offers a way forward.
This article is more than 4 years old

Liz Cleaver is an Independent HE Consultant. She is currently working with universities on the design and implementation of Higher Technical Qualifications.

Alastair Robertson is Dean of Teaching and Learning at Abertay University.

Fiona Smart is an Associate Professor in Learning and Teaching and Head of the Department of Learning and Teaching Enhancement at Edinburgh Napier.

Paul Redford is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Professor in Learning and Teaching at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol).

We’ve been thinking about and discussing value and values a lot recently.

In October last year, the Office for Students launched its value for money strategy to counter growing concerns about “low value” degrees. In response, a recent speech by Universities UK President Julia Buckingham proposed a new tool to measure the value of degrees beyond the P60. And in a recent Wonkhe article, value was recognised as messy wicked business, with some of the many and current ideas about value and values seen as situationally defined value judgments.

Of course, this isn’t just an issue for higher education. Recent proposals on a points-based immigration system are steeped in value judgements. This raises questions including: what jobs are seen to be of enough “value” to be allowed exemption from immigration rules? And who does the valuing?

As the debate about value rumbles on, the words of Muniesa spring to mind: “periods of unrest in valuation often open interesting opportunities for the questioning of available theories of value and for the renewal of the intellectual repertoire, sometimes also of the political one.”

Although Muniesa’s focus is particularly on financial value, his words form a useful starting point for our own reflections: how are we questioning and renewing the current intellectual and – perhaps more importantly – the political repertoire, as part of the current debate about value in higher education?

Beyond the metrics

Our specific interest in this issue has come from a learning and teaching perspective and a recognition that evidencing the value, “excellence” or quality of the higher education we offer is a classic wicked problem; something that cannot simply be achieved by the use of metric proxies such as student satisfaction and graduate earnings alone.

There are important aspects that lie at the heart of a high-quality educational experience, which are not easily measurable or quantifiable. We term these higher education’s “intangible assets”. Like many others in the sector, we are wary of falling into the trap of simply valuing things that can easily be measured or, worse still, presuming that things that are not easily measured are not really that important. We have recently written about this danger, the so-called McNamara Fallacy.

Our thoughts on this arise from the Beyond the Metrics project that we undertook last year as part of QAA Scotland’s national enhancement theme: Evidence for Enhancement. Here we developed a conceptual model and process to help institutions identify, evidence, enhance and, in doing so, show the value of their intangible assets at micro (eg modules; courses), meso (eg departmental) and macro (eg university; sector) levels. There has been real interest in this work, and we have now used the model to support a number of strategic planning, TEF preparation and quality review activities.

A significant number of university strategies now articulate the values that lie at the heart of their institutional cultures. At UWE, Bristol, the just-launched Strategy 2030 is underpinned by clear institutional values (which interestingly are now one and the same as UWE’s graduate attributes). These values are arguably in and of themselves intangible assets, made manifest through behaviours, activities and commitments.

It is therefore no surprise that the intangible assets that our HE colleagues have identified are often infused with and underpinned by their own and their institution’s values. Examples include the sense of belonging and identity engendered through membership of academic communities, a sense of wellbeing, the wider lifelong transformational impact of education on students’ attitudes, values and behaviours and the creation of a work-based and learning culture of “care”.

Value creation

This focus on values as central to the things that matter most, provides an alternative lens through which the value of HE can be considered. Looking beyond HE, evidence shows that values and purpose driven organisations are outperforming their competitors, as well as attracting and retaining our graduates.

This is not just in the corporate sector. Organisations such as Buurtzorg are demonstrating that being driven by values can create workplaces that are psychologically as well as financially healthy. In brief, organisations with clearly articulated and authentic values are shown to retain employees, improve wellbeing and impact on creativity and innovation in the area of service delivery.

This part of the business is necessarily intrinsic, messy and intangible and therefore difficult to quantify. But it’s important, nevertheless. And it resonates with our growing awareness that Generation Z students and graduates (who will become the HE workforce of the future) identify as being more values driven and ethical, and less materialistic than earlier generations. Their values may not always align with those inherent in the current policy discourse of value for money.

Arguably now is the time for Accountability 2.0 in UK higher education: a time to renew the intellectual and political repertoire, to articulate the importance of our intangible assets and to identify the values that inform and underpin them. These intangibles form the heartbeat of the higher education we offer and we believe, as members of values-based organisations, that their recognition is key to our future success and the success of our students and graduates.

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