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Higher education is about making lives better. That’s why we need better well-being metrics and yes, maybe even a well-being league table.

  • 13 May 2019
  • By Hugo Dale-Harris

It is mental health awareness week so – quite rightly – your newsfeeds will be full of articles about mental health. At HEPI we’ve written about these issues at length before. But that is not what this blog is about.

As our own Rachel Hewitt pointed out in last week’s Policy Note Measuring well-being in higher education , well-being is different from mental health and we should not mix up the terms. Mental health is medically focused, while well-being aims to capture a comprehensive sense of how good people’s lives are. Mental health focuses on those who are worst off, those suffering the most, while well-being takes a broad spectrum from the best to the worst possible life.

For me, as a non-data person, the key take home from this report is that well-being data are not ‘woolly’. It is defined by a standardised set of questions, and it can be accurately measured – certainly in the aggregate – and the ONS has been collecting national data on it since early 2011, which stands up to international comparison. Of course, these data are not perfect but then no data are. National statistics on GDP or employment rates are estimates that give us an indication about the economy. Well-being data likewise are estimates, but it gives us an indication of how good people’s lives are. As such, well-being measures what really matters, and it does a good job.

The report also highlighted how higher education is behind on collecting meaningful data on this most important of questions. It seems ridiculous that our wellbeing data are so patchy, whether on current students, staff in higher education or graduates. Since 2014, HEPI and Advance HE have collected student well-being through our Student Academic Experience Survey. In the past we’ve used this to highlight the much lower well-being of LGBT+ students compared to heterosexual students. And we will be launching the latest results of this year’s survey at our Annual conference on the 13th of June. But the ultimate importance of well-being calls for a much larger effort.

With reliable well-being data we could put this issue at the centre of decision making on many levels. When institutions decide how to run their courses, or what kind of accommodation to build, or take any decisions effecting students we would hope that student well-being (both short and long term) is their ultimate concern. But without evidence for what really leads to greatest well-being these decisions are hampered and decision makers may lack the incentives and rewards for doing the best thing for students.

When students choose universities, we should imagine that many of their questions are really proxies for what their well-being will be like if they attend. So why shouldn’t they have comparable indicators of different levels of well-being at different universities? Of course, any league table will raise the same question about selection effects rather than value added. A university that recruits large numbers of students who grew up in poverty, or have left care, may have lower average well-being of students as a result, just like they may also show lower future earnings of their graduates. The response to this problem should be the same, proper benchmarking, produced by a responsible source, to produce a ‘well-being value added’ score for universities. And the best way to get league table compilers to pick up this metric would be to produce it and make it freely available.

When it comes to long term graduate well-being, focusing on this will allow higher education to tell it’s best story. Graduates have higher well-being than non-graduates. If I had to give a single reason why higher education is worth it that would be it. Sure, earning more money, having more interesting work and wider social networks are all nice – but why do we care about them? Only because we think they will lead to a better life, to better well-being.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable for a prospective student to ask which university or subject will lead to the best well-being in 20 years, as well as which will lead to earning the most money. I am sure that the poor performance of some subjects in the future earnings data, most obviously some creative arts courses would be counteracted by a focus on well-being data. Does studying creative arts lead to higher earnings in 20 years? Possibly not. Will it give me a better life? Probably yes.

It is natural that a sector that feels bruised by metrics will feel resistant to the idea of creating more. But league tables and metric based targets are not going way. Universities and their staff will continue to be judged and ranked by metrics. Isn’t it time we collected better metrics on what really matters – giving people a better life?

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