Where’s the value debate about to go next?

The question of “value for money” has been floating around since the advent of £9k fees. Debbie McVitty wonders where it's going next

The question of “value for money” has been floating around English higher education since the advent of £9k fees.

The calculation at the time was that students would naturally expect “more” from the student experience, which universities would duly deliver.

Though the “consumerist” basis for the calculation came under fire from some quarters on ideological grounds, and others worried that the sort of value involved would be more in the swimming pools, shiny buildings and en suites end of the scale than enhancements to learning and teaching, there was (to my recollection), much less concern about whether the university sector would be able to deliver that value.

At that time, although the overall size of the average graduate premium was subject to debate, its existence was routinely cited inside and outside the sector as evidence of the value of HE. And though the causal relationship between the quality of education provided, the various bells and whistles of student experience, and an individual salary outcome, was understood as being tenuous at best, that only really mattered in the abstract because students were either having a marvellous time, or they were getting good jobs, or both.

Those were the days

Since those days, things have changed. Longitudinal educational outcome (LEO) data has raised questions about the simple calculation of HE = graduate job. And students consistently say they’re not convinced they’re getting value for money, even though NSS results have remained strong in aggregate, if variable at local level.

The debate as it plays out in HE has been prompted by LEO, TEF and the Augar report – basically DfE’s efforts to rationalise some kind of money in/value out equation – and is peppered with calls to “widen” definitions of value. Universities UK president Julia Buckingham recently announced that Universities UK plans to produce a new evidence framework, supported by data, to measure the social impact of degrees beyond individual salary outcomes.

What’s odd about this is that though the actual numbers of students who are demonstrably “worse off” through going to university either because they had a dreadful time or didn’t get the salary pay-off compared to someone who hadn’t attended university, is a minority. In a true commercial market where the calculation was genuinely transactional those “low-value” courses – if/where they exist (because I’m not sure anyone’s really arguing for killing off the creative arts, or nursing, or youth and community studies courses) – would simply be axed.

Chicken soup

Rather than accepting that in a large and complicated sector there will be some failures, instead the sector has embarked on a round of soul-searching about the value of a degree. And I wonder whether the BAME attainment gap, the student mental health crisis, industrial action over pay and pensions, even the Brexit debate, might offer important context to this debate.

Though the occasion for the conversation is government policy, there’s also a sense in which the sector’s faith in itself has been shaken. Value is often about intangibles: trust, connection, a sense of purpose. These things offer meaning, and a way of making sense of the world. In the past universities made confident claims about their ability to handle £9k fees, about the graduate premium, and about their place in the world. While those claims haven’t exactly been proven false, they’re looking too simplistic (and sanguine) for our fractious, fragmented society.

There’s a bunch of new initiatives in train in universities, such as building programmes of work around the UN Sustainable Development Goals, or embedding climate action in university strategy, or adopting an integrated reporting approach in which articulation and reporting of value is shaped by stakeholders’ views and priorities rather than by the university’s activities, or UUK’s proposal to take seriously measures of social impact. These speak to a desire to be part of something beyond the transactional: the sense of larger meaning and purpose offered by being – and being recognised as – a force for good in society.

Real engagement

But the job is much bigger than gathering and publishing evidence. It takes communication skills of the highest order. Many corporate brands exploit this desire for meaning to make you believe that buying a pair of trainers connects you to a global community of like-shod souls. Universities, who actually have the authentic story to tell of lives transformed, are behind the curve when it comes to communicating in a way that helps the people who engage with them feel that their engagement is meaningful.

Genuine engagement – the building of authentic, trusting relationships in which common purpose can be built, and issues spotted and addressed – is difficult, challenging work, as any student engagement professional will tell you. It takes creative, values-driven people who can judiciously wield influence to change the underpinning habits and behaviours of an organisation as well as its surface-level policies.

I wonder how many universities have senior, executive or director-level appointments who are skilled in public relations and whose focus is exclusively public relations – and how many of these count students and university staff as among their stakeholder groups whose voices they need to attend to, to be sure the university is living the values it espouses?

Julia Buckingham said last week, “We need to get better at telling our stories and telling them in ways that truly connect with people the length and breadth of the UK.” The diagnosis is accurate and, if Universities UK can pull off their new framework, soon there will be better evidence available to drive those stories. But the impact will come from what universities choose to do with that data.

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