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Wicked problems: how can we broaden the HE value debate?

If HE is to continue to prepare students for an uncertain world, the definition of its value must be broad and generous. Vanessa Wilson, David Kernohan and John Last offer three perspectives on value
This article is more than 4 years old

Vanessa Wilson is chief executive of University Alliance

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Professor John Last is the Chair of Ukadia and Vice Chancellor at Norwich University of the Arts.

“Value” must not become a justification for beating up higher education

Vanessa Wilson, University Alliance

I am a relative newcomer to the sector, having taken up the helm at University Alliance just nine months ago after working in Olympic and Paralympic sport for several years. The parallels between higher education and elite sport in the UK are closer than you may think: both are acknowledged as world leading and inspire a huge amount of national pride, both have implications for our global soft power, both rely on sustained levels of funding, and both need autonomy to flourish.

One of the issues we consistently came up against at UK Sport was defining our value, particularly in the face of multi-million pound investments. Now, this question of value looms large for HE.

For a long time, the value of HE was relatively unquestioned, but the introduction of a marketised system with rising levels of student debt has – not unreasonably – brought debates about value to the fore. This is challenging as value is inherently subjective. Often it is unclear whose perception of this loaded concept we are actually referencing, and value can too easily become a catchall justification for beating the sector into doing exactly what the government and its regulator wants

A case in point is the current conversation around “low value degrees”, a term bandied about by ministers and ever-present in the Augar review. Whereas “low quality” higher education would be indefensible – and, in a debate on these terms, we would know exactly where we stand. Charges of “low value” are less clear and therefore arguably more dangerous.

A debate on “low value” pits a degree’s commercial value against its personal and societal impact. Perversely, this means that in the current context, with the use of flawed LEO data and the preoccupation with graduate earnings, a low quality degree, poor in content or poorly taught, could still be considered high value if its graduates go on to earn above the acceptable threshold.

Meanwhile, narrow definitions of value based on salary potential could risk discounting the immense social and cultural value that the many teachers, artists, nurses, and others bring. I would argue that this is wrong. A high-quality education for these groups will deliver value regardless of the graduate’s future earnings, as it equips the next generation of public service workers and creative minds with the skills needed to deliver maximum value through their profession to society.

As a sector, we must come together to make our case compellingly and collectively, to make a more proactive effort to develop a holistic measure of value in partnership with students, employers, communities and society as a whole. To fail to win this argument on value would be a disservice to future generations, for society and the future of this nation.

We should pause before we jettison learning gain

David Kernohan, Wonkhe

If you take the sporadically popular “black box” theory of higher education seriously, a university is a box where regular people enter and (in the main) graduates leave. It is surprisingly difficult to quantify just what it is that makes graduates different – or how those entering university are changed by the experience.

There has been a number of attempts to measure these differences, most notably the projects supported by HEFCE and OfS under the “learning gain” umbrella. These were very much research-based, situated within a global effort to use reflective writing and summative test instruments and drawing on best practice (in particular, from the US).

But OfS was bringing qualitative tools to a quantitative fight in looking for what was always supposed to be a hard (or hard-ish) number to compare provider A against provider B or course Y against course Z. We can, of course, get a sense of how students have progressed through a course by talking to them at regular intervals. Or get a sense of how much course content they have taken on board by assessing them in the traditional fashion.

These time-tested methods get the job done, but don’t allow for the all-important differentiation between institutions through construction of league tables which has been the avowed goal of most English regulatory reforms since 2012. It’s tempting to flush out the whole concept of learning gain alongside the tepid bathwater of post-market policy and be done with it.

Although we should maybe pause. The question of what a university course does is one that we should, at any reasonable level, be able to answer. Those who witnessed Jim Dickinson’s beat poetry at Wonkfest will be familiar with the case against the dominant model of HE – creating social division, destroying working class communities, and loading young people with debt – and there is a growing need to be able to state the case in favour of the sector.

Understanding learning gain, and being able to talk with precision and reliability about the improvements to lives and life chances that HE can make, is going to be essential as the policy storm clouds begin to gather over the sector.

Undervaluing the creative arts makes us a poorer society in every sense

John Last, Norwich University of the Arts

Forgive a fleeting moment of optimism, but was a softening of political attitudes to the creative arts apparent during the general election?

Creative arts institutions and the creative industries have argued for much of the last decade that the government’s education policy in England had the effect of downgrading art, design, creative and performance-based subjects in the curriculum. A pipeline of talent from school to university to creative professions envied around the world has been in danger of fracture at home.

Yet the new administration has been elected on a manifesto which pledges to “invest in arts, music and sport” driven by an ambition for “young people to learn creative skills and widen their horizons”. An “arts premium” will be offered to secondary schools “to fund enriching activities for all pupils.”

Additional funding for arts education is always to be welcomed; though it remains to be seen how much, how quickly, and how it will be distributed.

Yet the phrase “enriching activities” causes my optimism to fade.

Is the right thing being done for the wrong reason? Does that mean the good will be done in too small a measure?

Creative arts certainly enrich our cultural life and, historically, have been a feature of a balanced curriculum intended to nurture rounded citizens.

But the creative sector grew faster than other industries in the 2010s and are now worth in excess of £100 billion a year to the UK economy. These are knowledge jobs resistant to automation. These are the British designers, makers, performers, and imaginative innovators that we celebrate at the Oscars, the catwalks in New York, Paris, and Milan, and on the international stage in every field of creative endeavour. There is a future-facing economic case to support the arts.

The challenge of the 2020s looks as if it will echo that of the last decade: to shift the argument and broaden understanding in political and policy circles of the arts’ contribution to the UK’s prosperity as well as its cultural and civic health. Continuing the under-valuing of arts education makes us a poorer society in every sense.

One response to “Wicked problems: how can we broaden the HE value debate?

  1. Defining what is a wicked problem in this post will help readers to better understand the uncertainties expressed.

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