This blog was kindly contributed by Paul Gratrick, Faculty Business Partner at the University of Liverpool’s Careers service where he has been researching value for money at an institutional level.
Despite Universities Minsters currently playing the hokey-cokey with their role, the questioning of the value for money of higher education is still rumbling on. The good news though is that the original Chris Skidmore gave some welcome speeches about the value of all subjects and tried to steer the sector away from an undue focus on STEM. Hopefully, he’ll reprise such greatest hits for his recently announced comeback and will delight audiences wherever his ministerial tour bus goes.
At Education Minster level, Gavin Williamson recently referenced the annual HEPI-Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey (SAES), using the annual survey as a source to say that student perceptions of value for money were on the up. From that survey we can see that is the case, albeit still only 41% of students report this. And so here we are… the ministers and metrics want universities to provide value for money but where can this come?
To explore value for money further, I replicated much of the HEPI-Advance HE SAES survey at a local level, asking the same and additional questions to first year students at the University of Manchester from September to December 2018. The students were asked the same questions at the start and end of semester one in order to track any changes in their value for money perceptions. The results were interesting and the headline was that the overall value for money perceptions were 66% at the start of term – well above the national average recorded in the HEPI-Advance HE survey. However, this did drop slightly to 62% by the end of the first semester. In stating why they perceived the value for money to be good/bad, the students tended to select the same majority reasons seen in the HEPI-Advance HE national survey, namely teaching content and quality, and university facilities and fees.
Given the locality of this survey I did include some Manchester specific items for the students to opt for when giving their responses, however, these were rarely selected as indicators of value for money assessments for either good or bad reasons. For example, Manchester has a flagship ‘Stellify’ programme that begins in the first week for first year students, putting them into the largest joint classroom in the world for a group challenge with their peers. This offers a significant opportunity for students to meet new people, learn new skills and integrate into university life, but when thinking of value for money this event that occurs early on in their university life was not registering, it was all about the teaching, course and fees. At this point it is worth noting that since the research was conducted Manchester now provide all students with a breakdown of how home UG fees are spent, and any future surveys may perhaps start to see a shift in what is listed as a factor in value for money perceptions.
Another central theme from my research was around expectations and what students thought they were going to get. For those registering good/very good value for money perceptions, the thematic coding of their free text responses revealed that it wasn’t so much about expectations being exceeded, but merely that they were just met compared to what they thought was going to happen. Conversely, those with low perceptions were saying that what they thought they were getting was just not there after open day and prospectus promises. A recent ComRes report has highlighted that students are immediately concerned about their learning and career paths when choosing a university, rather than the long term salary benefits. Is this perhaps the source of the teaching elements of university being the most referred to in value for money surveys, given that a student’s learning is at the forefront of their mind when selecting where to study?
At a recent conference of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS), I heard of work at King’s College London from Dr. Kate Daubney about the idea of ‘extracted employability’. The premise here was that there already exist many employability skills in academic programmes and you’ll find these in the QAA subject benchmark standards for any programme, it’s just a matter of bringing them to the surface and specifically highlighting them to students, rather than needing to add in a lot of extra (in curriculum or otherwise) activity. It isn’t possible to just keep adding more as part of some ‘added value’ arms race between institutions. The key to unlocking value for money is simply better evidencing of what you already do, and indeed promise to students before they arrive.
A more pointed question is how exactly are the courses, their content and teaching elements being ‘sold’ at open days? With a low in the number of 18 year-olds in the population and need for fees, are universities accurately portraying the nature of their degrees? Over-selling and not meeting promises is more damaging whatever institutional set up you have. Is the standard format of an open day enough anymore? As part of any admissions review or otherwise, do we need to consider short residentials either at FE or HE institutions with these being a space to more accurately portray what FE/HE is like and to begin managing that transition in a more extensive and meaningful way. One other route is to systemically and early on include value for money narratives as part of taught courses. At the University of Liverpool where I work now the new Careers and Employability Team structure has provided the space for Faculty facing teams to deliver this type of content as part of curriculum interactions with students, constantly reinforcing the value that students will get from their degrees. These value aspects are already present, they’re just being surfaced and ‘extracted’ in the same way employability skills are as part of these interactions.
Value for money is an incredibly subjective concept, but common almost all is whether or not expectations of what they were going to receive have been met. Any institution need not focus on adding more and more to its portfolio of teaching and facilities, they just need to more clearly (and honestly) articulate what a student will get and then reinforce this as part of the teaching once students join. Extract the existing value, don’t get competitive and don’t try to just add more.