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How we talk about the ‘value’ of higher education should change as the next spending review hoves into view

  • 27 April 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

There’s always a big fiscal event around the corner, whether it is a budget, a pre-budget statement or, most importantly of all, a multi-year spending review. Waiting for the next multi-year review has been a bit like waiting for Godot. It has been repeatedly delayed: I recall going to an event at the Institute for Government a couple of years ago and hearing a very senior civil servant say the next major spending review would be completed more smoothly, more carefully and more quickly than usual. Well, the Brexit shenanigans and the COVID crisis put paid to that.

Yet it will happen at some point and, in preparing for it, we may mistakenly restrict ourselves to thinking the question we must answer is: what value does the higher education sector offer? There are threats to ‘low-value courses’, the London weighting and to specific out-of-favour disciplines (like the high-profile case of Media Studies but other disciplines too, like Archaeology) as well as recommendations from Philip Augar and others to reduce fees (although in Philip’ own case this may have since been rescinded), which we try and rebut through evidence on the value of the sector.

People in higher education generally like to follow the evidence and it seems logical that, if only we can prove the value of what we do, then adequate (if not generous) funding will be forthcoming. So we respond by emphasising the value of education to society, the value of education in economic terms and the value of education to each of us as citizens.

But we must also ask why, if the benefits are so provable, they do not always cut through – or at least not sufficiently to guarantee protection in the spending review when it does finally arrive. Policymakers continue to question whether so many people should enter higher education, whether all courses have value and what more can be done to make further education more attractive by making higher education less attractive. The cycle goes on and on.

The time has surely some to broaden the conversation. The main challenge is not, in fact, proving higher education has value, for that is much better understood than is often supposed. There are not lots of people going around arguing that higher education in general and overall has no value; it is a straw-man argument. (Although, admittedly, it has been articulated in one thought-provoking US book, reviewed here by Danny Dorling.)

Even those policymakers down on universities have typically benefited from a university education themselves and want their own children to do so. If they didn’t know already, the current crisis has also reminded them of the benefits of research, a higher proportion of which takes place in the UK inside universities than in other countries. The Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, speaks proudly of his time at Bradford University, where he graduated in Social Sciences in the late 1990s, but he still asks whether too many people go, whether some courses are less valuable and whether some institutions should shape shift.

The crucial issue is wider than the value question and it is comparative. It is not ‘is higher education valuable?’ It is ‘why should taxpayers’ contributions pay for more higher education instead of paying for A, B or C instead?’

The crucial issue that he and others have to care about as public policymakers, but which people working in only one sector inevitably pay less attention to, is wider than the value question and it is comparative. It is not ‘is higher education valuable?’; it is ‘why should taxpayers’ contributions pay for more higher education instead of paying for A, B or C instead?’ There are limits to how much money the Government has to spend, so a spending review is, at heart, a zero-sum game. In this case, A, B or C might link to COVID recovery, or other parts of the education system or even tax cuts. It might be spending on national defence, the NHS or relieving poverty.

Answering this broader question of why higher education has a good call on public funds alongside other calls on public funds necessitates an articulation of the benefits of higher education that are expressed in economic and financial terms. This can seem limiting (even when done alongside the other benefits). But the only alternative to sometimes emphasising the direct and indirect financial benefits is never mentioning them, which is nonsensical given the benefits of education are in part financial and given that other areas receiving public spending do stress the financial benefits. And there is no better time to remind people of this than a little before a spending review.

if the Government are unable, or do not want, to fund higher education as generously as we in the sector might like, what is the least bad alternative option?

Answering this comparative question also means thinking about a Plan B: if the Government are unable, or do not want, to fund higher education as generously as we in the sector might like, what is the least bad alternative option?

A decade ago, once it became a certainty that austerity would affect higher education spending, a majority of vice-chancellors came to regard a big increase in tuition fees as preferable to the alternatives, like fewer student places or drastic cuts in the amount available to educate each student. (I know this in part because it was my job to compile the list of supportive vice-chancellors for the then Prime Minister to wield in the House of Commons and with the media.)

What is the Plan B this time? Is it tweaks to the student loan repayment terms to recover more public spending? Is it continuing cuts in the real-terms unit-of-resource? Or is it acceptance of a reduction in the number of places (just as the number of 18-year olds grows)?

I know my own order of priorities. I would do almost anything before cutting the number of places, given the growing demand for higher education and the fact that having fewer places is likely to hit the most disadvantaged people hardest. But at a sector-wide level, what is the hierarchy of asks beyond more public spending as the spending review finally hoves into view?

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