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Reflecting on the value of higher education

  • 10 March 2021
  • By Rachel Hewitt

Today marks one year since the last HEPI in-person event. On 10 March 2020, while we were getting used to using hand sanitiser more regularly but not quite at the point of cancelling events, we held a small Expert Policy Seminar on ‘Measuring the value of higher education’, where we considered the politics of measuring value and how the value of higher education could fairly be measured. Earlier in 2020 I had written a blog setting out how 2020 was going to be the year where ‘value’ was the key policy issue, following a greater focus on the salary data available through the Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) dataset and the 2019 Conservative manifesto commitment to ‘tackle the problem of low value courses’. The blog also contained a line about how Chris Skidmore had promised the full response to Augar would come alongside the Spending Review later in 2020, which fills me with a sense of déjà vu.

Clearly, I could not have, and did not, predict what was to come. Over the following weeks, university campuses were largely shut down with teaching moving online, as the country moved into its first lockdown. Even at that point, it wasn’t clear that the impact was going to go on to affect the full 2020/21 academic year. Through the rest of 2020, much of the focus was taken up by responding to the pandemic, considering how best to keep students and staff safe, deliver an online student experience and maintain the financial sustainability of universities.

However, the issue of value did not go away. In fact, issues around whether students were able to get ‘value for money’ through the pandemic became a focal point. Our HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey showed a decline in students reporting ‘good or very good’ value for money for the first time in three years (later this year, when we publish the 2021 Survey, we will see whether this trend continues). More recently, calls for refunds in fees and accommodation costs have focused on the value that students are able to get from their course and, in some cases, living away from their higher education provider.

Meanwhile, the Government did not move away from the issue of ‘value’ in higher education either. Gavin Williamson as Secretary of State for Education and Michelle Donelan as Universities Minister frequently made speeches describing the need to ‘tackle low quality higher education’ and stating ‘young people have been taken advantage of’ by the higher education system. Alongside this, the Office for Students launched a consultation looking at how quality and standards can be measured and regulated. The higher education sector remains under considerable Government scrutiny as to how it demonstrates value to students.

So despite a global pandemic throwing some predictions from 2020 off course, the issue of value is not going to go away. For students currently studying, it seems particularly critical given the disruption to their studies and universities have had to find entirely new ways of operating to deliver value. With this remaining a pressing issue, it feels a timely moment to be holding our next webinar with Advance HE, where we will be considering ‘What does value for money look like in a pandemic?’ The second in our series replacing our usual Parliamentary Breakfast Seminar Series, we will be considering what value really looks like through COVID-19, with Chris Skidmore, former Universities Minister, Professor Cara Aitchison, President and Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University, Stephen Marston, Vice-Chancellor of University of Gloucestershire and Professor Bronwyn Parry, Vice President and Vice-Principal (Service), King’s College London. Register now for free here.

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