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Is students’ well-being what really matters?

  • 2 July 2019
  • By Dean Machin

This guest blog from Dean Machin, Strategic Policy Adviser at the University of Portsmouth responds to the debate around the publication of HEPI’s Policy note 13 on measuring wellbeing in higher education. He writes in a personal capacity.

 Universities are investing more resources in their students’ well-being. This is right. It is important for student success and is something about which parents worry about a great deal. But when assessing universities – and even ranking them, is it really – that is fundamentally – what matters?

Well-being is not the only measure of what is important – of how well people’s lives are going – either in the short- or long-term. Simplifying a little, moral and political philosophy categorises what is important (or what fundamentally matters) as follows:

  1. Utility – this comes in a subjective version, usually understood to refer to happiness, pleasure, preference-satisfaction etc. But it can also be understood to include more objective or qualitative elements. In Utilitarianism John Stuart Mill argued that some pleasures are just better than others, no matter how they feel on the inside. He put it boldly [p.7]: it is better to be ‘Socrates dis-satisfied’ than a ‘fool satisfied’.
  2. Freedom – negative freedom (the absence of external barriers to stop you from doing what you want) or positive freedom (the idea of self-mastery or self-realization). The two ideas are different because without the internal capabilities required for self-realization you may not know how to benefit from the fact that nothing outside you stands in your way.
  3. Character – being a good person who predictably responds appropriately to different situations.

Public policy does give some attention to freedom and character but measures of subjective well-being have started to attract far more attention – including the proposal that it, not economic growth, should be the main aim of public spending.

Why? There are some good reasons but also one important bad one: ignorance. Welfare economics has a disproportionate influence over public policy and it operates almost exclusively with the assumption that utility (for which well-being is one measure) is all that really matters.

This ignorance matters for at least two reasons. Welfare economics is a branch of moral and political philosophy but is seldom taught or understood this way. More practically, ignorance of alternatives to utility and well-being distort our thinking and so our public policy choices.

You might think – as I do – that well-being is not what really matters to how well your life goes. But even if you think it is, it does not follow that all areas of public policy should be assessed by how well they promote well-being.

In my view, it is a far more appropriate for a university to aim to increase its students’ long-term positive freedom. If this is true – and I have asserted rather than argued for this – instead of assessing and ranking universities on the basis of the ONS well-being survey we could construct a positive freedom survey. Questions could include things like did your university education give you the capabilities, and make you aware of the opportunities to live the life you think is worthwhile?

From a public policy perspective it would be very interesting if graduates of university A overwhelmingly answered ‘yes’ but those of university B said ‘no, I learned those things at school’.

That universities proper aim should be their students’ positive freedom does not mean that they should cease to worry about their students’ well-being. They should devote resources to it – and they do. Why? Because students’ well-being affects the degree to which they learn and develop at university. Universities’ ability to develop their students’ long-term positive freedom depends on their ability to foster their students’ shorter-term well-being.

But the fundamental public policy interest would remain how universities develop students’ capabilities and skills, not how they feel while at university.

So if we must measure – and indeed rank – universities on the basis of the quality of the lives of their students and graduates, it would better to design a survey that elicits students’ and graduates’ views on the relationship between their university experience and the development of their positive freedom.

This would not be an easy task but, if I am right (and I might not be), such a survey would be far more informative than simply adopting an ONS well-being survey wholesale and measuring universities against that.

More generally, given the potentially distortive effects of measures and rankings it is worth taking our time to understand this issue fully and to identify the right measures rather than simply adopting the available ones. And for that we must consider alternatives to well-being – and positive freedom is one very plausible alternative.

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