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Let’s talk about Social Value for Money

  • 27 March 2018
  • By Nick Petford

This guest blog has been kindly written for us by Professor Nick Petford, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Northampton.

The draft regulatory framework consultation undertaken by the Department for Education on behalf of the Office for Students (OfS) made much of value for money. The framework sets out that ‘Approved’ providers publish statements on steps taken to ensure value for money for students and taxpayers alike. What exactly value for money means in this context is ambiguous, but in some quarters of the popular press the appeal is an end-member one focused on contact hours and class sizes, cut and pasted from schools to universities.

While utilitarian metrics have the advantage of being easily understood, they fail to capture the rich diversity of student-facing activities in our universities and the value they add to the student experience more generally. The recently published research project commissioned by the Office for Students (Value for Money: the student perspective) suggests just over half (54%) of students surveyed considered their course offered value for money, with ongoing concerns about hidden costs and cross-subsidies.  However, it also revealed wide variations in the minds of students as to how exactly the question should be answered. This suggests room to include social value as part of the overall definition.

From an economic perspective, an argument for social value is easily made. We know from the UK and elsewhere, the net private benefit to students in going to university is large, as shown repeatedly by surveys of graduate versus non-graduate lifetime earnings. At the same time, the (marginal) value to society provided by universities in their daily activities exceeds the personal benefit to the individual student. Explicit reference to this positive externality (as opposed to public good), provided to the taxpayer by our universities, seems lost in the current value for money debate.

It goes without saying that universities play a significant role in the social and economic development of society and have been instrumental in the development of economic, social, and cultural capital. The strength of the links between universities and local stakeholders including Local Enterprise Partnerships, the NHS and employers has opened up new opportunities whilst increasing expectations that universities will take the lead on an increasing range of agendas. There are also opportunities for higher education institutions to take more advantage of the UK’s ground-breaking Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 in areas such as procurement, thus adding to their positive social impact and externalities.

At the same time, on the individual (student) level, a growing number of universities have adopted strategies to promote and embed social enterprise, social innovation and social entrepreneurship. Socially impactful universities have been helped in their efforts by, among others, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the Social Enterprise Mark and Social Enterprise UK. The HEFCE-funded Social Entrepreneurs in Education (SEE) Change programme is a good example. It enabled 56 higher education institutions, in partnership with UnLtd, the foundation for social entrepreneurs, to support over 800 staff and student social entrepreneurs to develop social capital with impact. The project evaluation which HEFCE commissioned laid out a number of recommendations which, if adopted, would enhance positive externalities by increasing both the marginal benefit to individuals and society (and the taxpayer) more broadly. We call this Social Value for Money (SVFM).

As the review of education funding gathers pace, an exclusive focus on value for money as a purely financial transaction that fails to recognise social value as a vital component of an inclusive economy, is a missed opportunity. We feel the time is right to develop the SVFM concept and embed it into any future regulatory framework and evaluation of higher education institutions. To achieve this objective, we propose:

  1. The Office for Students commit to adopting the recommendations of the HEFCE report.
  2. A meeting takes place between universities and the Office for Students as early as possible to commit to the adoption of a SVFM framework.
  3. SVFM be included as a cross-cutting criterion for the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), Research Excellence Framework (REF), and emerging Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF).
  4. The National Union of Students be engaged in this agenda to shape the approach and collaborate to ensure SVFM makes a positive contribution to employability outcomes and enhances social mobility.

The social value contribution of the higher education sector has long been taken for granted. We feel the time is now right to develop a metrics-based approach that captures and champions the role universities make to enhancing the social fabric of their communities.

Supporting Institutions:

  • The University of Northampton
  • Aston University
  • Birmingham City University
  • Coventry University
  • Oxford Brookes University
  • University of Portsmouth
  • Royal Agricultural University
  • Sheffield Hallam University
  • University Campus Suffolk

Delivery Partners:

  • UnLtd, Social Enterprise UK, Social Enterprise Mark
  • President of the National Union of Students (Shakira Martin)

1 comment

  1. Ed Hughes says:

    The HEFCE evaluation has now been published, and is available at

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