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Selecting, Studying and Staying in Higher Education: A Utility Equation?

  • 30 May 2023
  • By Dr John Cater

A Utility Equation is a mathematical construct, a formula doubtless known to Rishi Sunak and all who followed the discipline to Level 3 at 18.  

The construct is grounded in microeconomics, an abstract value you gain from a preference, the satisfaction you gain from a selection.  But the author can find limited evidence of the measure being used to help us understand decision-making in higher education.  Perhaps it should be.

An A-level student heading to university is giving the experience three years of their lives.  A university’s priority must be the quality of the academic experience provided; increasingly the regulatory requirements that surround this have also moved towards the top of the pile.  But university should also be a life experience, not simply a learning experience, and where there is dissatisfaction with an experience, both factors typically come into play.  Holistically, what makes university worthwhile?

The Selection Process

Post-Covid, fewer applicants visit fewer universities before making their choices, increasing the importance of brand and reputation over experiential judgments.  High-tariff universities, broadly but not totally aligned with the Russell Group, have benefitted with a disproportionate increase in demand, whilst low- and, increasingly, mid-tariff institutions have found applicant numbers stalling.

A look at any school’s website will also demonstrate the utility it believes it gets from listing the number of Oxbridge and Russell Group entrants in any one year, a vehicle for attracting more students with more potential into its sixth form.  And there is the dinner party test; if you proudly state that your son or daughter is going to Edge Hill, the institution is winning the perceptual battle, if you simply say “university” and clam up, the University is not.

Studying and Staying At University

It’s November.  It’s cold, it’s wet and there’s a bus strike.  Do you turn in for that nine o’clock lecture and seminar?  Other things being equal, it depends on the value of the experience.  Will it be stimulating; will it be relevant?  Will you be motivated; will you be enthused?  Will your friends be there, so that you can combine the academic and the social, the learning and the living?  If not, ‘will you pull the bedclothes higher and dream of summertime instead’? 

After the Christchurch earthquake there were attempts in New Zealand (and beyond) to create ‘sticky’ campuses, places where students would want to be far beyond their timetabled times – living accommodation, excellent facilities for on-line, individual and group working, part-time jobs, student societies, social spaces, cultural, sporting and social activity, accessible to all.  If a campus is ‘sticky’, and this can be combined with a strong brand and reputation and a track record of accessible academic excellence, retention improves; in a ‘commute to study’ institution, the challenge is much greater.

The Labour Market

No Government wants to be seen to be denying opportunity, but increasingly the State, of either political bent, wants to shape and re-define aspiration, hence the surfeit of media stories and Ministerial proposals around (degree) apprenticeships, modularity, lifelong learning and lifelong loans.  The State sees much utility – one suspects driven as much by fiscal as educational reasons – in alternatives to the three-year undergraduate degree.  The battle is whether the prospective consumers and stakeholders agree, and at present there is a dissonance between what individuals, families and stakeholders want for ‘their’ outcome and what they want for the aspirations of others.

We’re back to a utility equation.  Is university today worth the prospective loan repayments of the future?  Historic evidence is clear that it is, and not simply on financial grounds, but the utility question is a perception question.  And the attempts to shift that perception are writ large.

To Conclude

Beware complacency.  The age cohort continues to rise until 2030, and both HEPI and UCAS are predicting a continued and substantial increase in demand for higher education, ‘conventional’ and lifelong.  They may well be right.  But they will only be right if the value, and in particular the perceptual value, of higher education is sustained.  Institutions can shape that utility equation.  To do so we need to focus on all aspects of the student experience, from recruitment through to graduation and to the labour market beyond. 

1 comment

  1. Abbie Chambers says:

    Interesting reading and thoughtful insight into students experience

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