Does higher education represent value for money? It’s a tricky question to which there can be many different answers. Students are likely to have a different view than, say, regulators, academics and taxpayers. Nonetheless it’s the topic du jour for the sector in England right now.

The notion of Value for Money (VfM) has been chewed over at the highest levels. It’s the subject of a House of Commons Select Committee inquiry, and it was a topic at the centre of a House of Lords select Economic Affairs Committee, which declared that post-school education in England “offers poor value for money to individuals, taxpayers and the economy. It requires immediate reform.”

However, Universities UK says institutions are committed to delivering value for money for students, for government and for the wider public through driving efficiency, embracing innovation, working smarter, and by learning from each other.

“All this means that our universities can remain at the top in what is a global competition. It enables them to invest in the very best people, world-class facilities, cutting-edge technology, and in providing the best possible experience to their students during their time at university.​”

Despite this, the UK Higher Education Academy notes that for students “perceptions of value for money are falling … Across the UK, nearly as many students (34%) now think they are receiving poor value as think they are receiving good value (35%)”.

Nonetheless, the head of England’s new Office for Students Nicola Dandridge says that when it comes to students’ understanding of the concept of value for money their “views often diverge”.

“… for some students it is about the quality and inspiration of the teaching and feedback they receive, for others it is about getting a job when they graduate. Some see it in terms of their whole higher education experience … while others break it down into how much they are paying for each lecture or tutorial”.

Diversity of perspectives

Given the diversity of perspectives, she says, it is not possible to construct “a single algorithm” to account for VfM: “It is a far richer concept than that, and will always mean different things to different people. This needs to be acknowledged, and indeed welcomed.”

VfM also needs to be considered from the point of view of the taxpayer. “In that context the expression is more likely to relate to the benefits not just to students, but also to the country and the economy – balanced against the amount of taxpayer subsidy.”

Writing in Wonkhe, Mary Leishman and Joe Cox note that in a survey of students’ unions recent election candidate manifesto pledges “value for money” was the second most mentioned issue.

“Despite this, the definition of ‘value’ and ‘value for money’ in higher education is contested,” they write.

“Some believe that it is about the quality of the student experience itself, while others focus on outcomes like the ‘graduate premium’.”

Also writing in Wonkhe, Louis Coiffait observes that while fees, costs and pay are discussed in the VfM debate “there’s no mention of happiness, creativity, autonomy, well-being, belonging, identity, connectedness, or meaning”.

“Are these other outcomes valuable? I’d say so, but – and here’s the catch – they’re not value-able. Meaning is harder to measure than money, and the latter is already in a handy numeric form.”

‘Almost too easy to debunk’

And Jim Dickinson says that for many people working in universities the notion of VfM is “almost too easy to debunk … You can argue that multiple meanings and motivations make ‘value’ impossible to meaningfully measure”.

But, he writes, VfM is deployed by policymakers “because it’s popular”.

“… right across society, there is something simplistically positive about getting good value for money and something viscerally unpleasant about the feeling of being ripped off. Ministers know this. The public wants it.

“What if the trick is to look out at students instead of to regulators, and to do the right thing before government and its regulator is forced to require you to do things that they say are right?”

Read more:

Universities UK – Efficiency and Value for Money

Office for Students – How the OfS will address value for money

Commons Select Committee – Value for money in higher education inquiry

Higher Education Academy – Teaching is improving but students want better value for money

Wonkhe articles:

Jim Dickinson – Universities should take back control of the VfM agenda

Nicola Dandridge – How OfS will address value for money

Mary Leishman and Joe Cox – What do students see as value for money?

Louis Coiffait – Of values and value for money



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