Are schools more efficient than universities?

An answer to Lord Agnew

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

At every session of the House of Lords’ Industry and Regulators Committee’s inquiry into the Office for Students Lord Agnew has asked the same question.

I don’t say this as a criticism – it’s a good question – but to lament the fact it never gets an answer, though Vivienne Stern made a decent fist of it in her hearing.

So I thought I’d have a go at an answer.

Schools vs universities

Lord Agnew has his own expression, but the conundrum is something like: why do universities get £9,250 per student whereas schools get less (he usually cites a figure around £6,500) for teaching a pupil and teach for longer? Does this not mean that universities are inefficient compared to schools?

Let’s get the figures right to start with – the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that the average spending per higher education student is £9,300, whereas for a secondary school pupil the figure was due to be about £6,900 in 2022-23. You’ll have spotted already that this is spending, not income. Both schools and universities have additional income streams that prop up home teaching, though these are much more significant in universities (specifically thinking here about research funding and international recruitment).

Mainstream schools are minimally expected to provide a school week of 32.5 hours and deliver 190 days (expressed as 380 half-day sessions) during an academic year. If we allow for a standard school day of 9 – 3.30, with an hour of breaks this makes for a 5h30 day. These hours are almost always delivered face-to-face, in person, in the classroom (there is no accounting for learning done outside the school setting).

There are no minimum expectations, either for in-person delivery or total learning time, in a university setting. As a rough proxy a full time year of undergraduate study is worth 120 credits (with a credit having a nominal value of 10 hours of learning, however constituted). This is the equivalent of just over 171 seven hour days (9am to 5pm with an hour’s lunch break) across an academic year. However, many of these hours will be configured as independent learning rather than direct tuition.

So a secondary school (for the purposes of this back-of-an-envelope calculation) provides 1,045 hours of learning a year, whereas a university offers 1,197 hours. The spending per hour of learning at school then works out at £6.60 whereas the spending per hour of learning at university is a hair over £6.09.

The crux

The crux of the matter is the cost incurred for that independent learning, and whether this is reasonably less than the cost incurred in classroom based tuition. Here, we return to Vivienne Stern’s arguments – the specialist resources and spaces, the premium required to employ staff educated to the extent that they can teach in higher education, the expenses associated with providing a university-level library or IT service, and the provision of wrap-around student support. All of these could be considered a requirement for this kind of independent learning, and a prerequisite for the kind of higher level learning that goes on at a university.

So in partial answer to Lord Agnew, it is fair to argue that on this (very broad) basis that there is not really a significant difference between universities and secondary schools when it comes to teaching efficiency. It is very much not comparing like with like, and the premise of the question (that universities are bloated and inefficient) is unfamiliar to anyone who works in one, and I hear that schools aren’t exactly awash with cash either.

But I’d like to offer a very small prize (specifically a 50p piece and a penny) to anyone that can come up with a more accurate spending efficiency comparison between schools and universities.

One response to “Are schools more efficient than universities?

  1. David thank you for the helpful article and outline of relative costs. Moving away from comparing apples with oranges (schools with universities) is it worth considering comparing apples in different countries?

    The OECD Education at a Glance tables indicate the UK has the third highest tertiary education spend among developed nations .

    The two higher countries being the USA (skewed by Ivy league colleges and lower 6 year completion rates) and Luxembourg (skewed by the recent formation of the university in that country).

    A gentle amble through university campuses in many other parts of the world is likely to reveal the lower levels of non-academic support and facilities for students which may explain the variation in spending. I would hazard a guess that these observations about comparative spend and cost are not unknown to HM Treasury officials. I would also not be surprised if the decision to not uprate the UG fee in England from £9,250 until at least 2025 and to allow the real value of the fee to decline to nearer the OECD average is part of the way this regression to the mean is being managed.

    You will note that the OECD chart linked to above also draws attention to the very low level of expenditure on early years education in the UK. Is it perhaps possible that the spending proposals for child care in the recent budget and in earlier proposals from opposition parties in England were influenced by this insight?

    There is significant variation in the cost bases and in the cost effectiveness of universities across the UK and there is understandable pressure on them to operate with high levels of spending to attract overseas and home students. However, based on the latest OECD figures above, the spend per Tertiary education student in the UK in US dollars in 2020 was $29,688. This is $8,504 higher than the average spend in the other six G7 nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the USA). And with the UK spending nearly five times as much on higher education than further education it seems unlikely that college rather than university spend is the source of these differences.

    Perhaps another thought experiment worth considering would be how might institutions operate at this level if, as UCAS suggests, we are on a journey to 1 million university applicants per year by 2030

    With little economic growth in the UK and considerable voter antipathy to universities are real increases in fee levels for domestic undergraduates really likely?

    Perhaps we need to consider how to spend less, this could include fewer students studying away from home in residential accommodation, more part-time learning, more efficient and carbon neutral facilities and reductions in the wider range of services on offer. As painful as these and other options maybe they are not as painful as a £40 million pound deficit at one UK university or some of the financial challenges that can develop if early attention is not paid to these likely future pressures.

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