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How can institutions best account for the value they deliver?

  • 12 November 2019
  • By Nigel Seaton

This blog is an edited transcript of a speech delivered by Professor Nigel Seaton, Principal and Vice Chancellor of Abertay University, at the PwC / HEPI conference on the 18th October.

PwC are longstanding supporters of research into the Higher Education sector, and without their support the conference would not have been possible. This blog is the first in a series of three speeches which was delivered at PwC. The next blog will be in the form of a response to Professor Seaton by Sir Nigel Carrington on the issue of delivering value.

Our question posed at the joint PwC / HEPI conference – ‘How can institutions best account for the value they deliver’ – begs another one: what do we regard as value, and to whom are we delivering it?

We would all, I am sure, fundamentally feel that we are delivering value to our students, but as we all know the state is also an active stakeholder.

This activism plays out very differently in Scotland, and I want to spend a little time sketching this out. Despite some profound differences, I think there is nevertheless a common element to the challenges we face in demonstrating value.

Higher Education in Scotland and in England have diverged over the last decade or so, and this has accelerated since student-number caps were removed in England in 2013, creating a market in which demand influences supply.

Professor Nigel Seaton, Principal and Vice Chancellor of Abertay University

That reform was anathema in two senses in Scotland. There is an assumption within the SNP as the governing party, and to a degree elsewhere, that students should not pay for their education, even after they graduate. Instead the idea of coordination rather than competition is to be favoured in areas of the economy that are delivering public benefit. The former – ‘free higher education’ – attracts the headlines, but the latter – the maintenance of a planned higher education economy – is the more significant in its impact on universities.

I note in passing that driving down the minimal direct costs faced by Scottish students is a current issue and NUS Scotland is running a rather successful campaign against graduation fees. Other costs faced by students in Scotland are very much a live issue, with concern focusing on the fact that state support for student living costs in Scotland is substantially through loans rather than grants.

As is increasingly the case in England, higher education policy in Scotland is seen as delivering quite well defined political outcomes. The main outcomes sought are widening access to universities and an impact on economic development. In the Scottish higher education sector, we identify with both aspirations, and indeed my own university is a leader in delivering social mobility, as well as in working with industry in our own specialist areas.

In Scotland, the state exercises its control over the universities through Outcome Agreements. These are a set of requirements imposed upon each university – negotiable only to a limited degree – against which our performance is measured. Every year, the Outcome Agreement guidance is more detailed and more demanding, and the process is increasingly ‘one size fits all’ without regard to the size, mission or track record of the institution.

This year’s guidance requires reporting on, among very many other things, the use to which we are putting a small amount of ring-fenced funding for student counselling, and what we are doing to address gender imbalances between subjects, where the Scottish Government has taken a policy decision that no subject should have more than 75% male or female students. Critical among the requirements of the Outcome Agreements is target setting for widening access, which has had a complex set of effects on the sector as a whole, along with a measured impact on social mobility.

The Outcome Agreements are, in essence, a statement of what the Scottish Government expects in exchange for funding – of where they see value in exchange for the public funding provided. This is what we are required to focus on in Scottish universities – demonstrating value to the state through the Outcome Agreement.

What we would like to focus on, on the other hand, is our own understanding of our institutions’ charitable purposes, and our own concept of university education and what it does for our students, as well as other stakeholders such as business and local communities.

There is a tension here, as there inevitably and very properly is in a state-funded system in which universities are democratically accountable, between what is required by the state and what universities would wish to do if left to their own devices. In principle this is a productive tension, or at least one capable of yielding a reasonable compromise.

But there is a risk that the system is becoming unbalanced, with the burden of delivering political outcomes overwhelmingly down to the ability of universities to articulate and deliver their own educational vision. Though it plays out in very different ways, this tension is common to higher education in both England and Scotland.

Where does this leave us as universities, both north and south of the border?

I imagine we all have similar aims. While recognising the need for democratic accountability, we would rather have a broader view of value, emphasising what we do for our students. For many universities, this is the ‘inner life’ we feel we are living, whilst satisfying the requirements of the state.

To make a point here that is close to my own heart – and I say this as the head of a modern university where we and our students are strongly focussed on preparation for the world of work – I am concerned that the broader virtues of a university education as a preparation for life (not just work) and as personal enrichment, are being lost.

The central challenge for us is, I feel, that the terms of engagement for the discussion of value are not favourable to us. They are not ours or, really, those of our students.

So, I’ll finish with a question:

As we comply with expectations, and demonstrate value, how can we seek to change the terms of debate so that the concept of ‘value’ is in keeping with our ‘values’?

It will be a long, slow journey, but I do feel that we need to keep space in our minds, and in our institutional strategies, to try to do this.

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