How Can Higher Education Best Provide Value (For Money)?

How Can Higher Education Best Provide Value (For Money)?

Value for money is a pesky thing. Students, even seasoned graduates, will be hard pressed to assess the precise value of their degree. What you get from your university experience goes far beyond campus and can take many years to realise. The potential benefits are ongoing.

And while some graduates gain immediate benefit from their degree study, others don’t see much to boast over until much later in life.

If value is a subjective work in progress over a long period of time, are students in a position to understand and assess the full picture to gaining value for money? Getting the desired grade is possibly preferred over getting challenged academically. By this token, is value for money too subjective on too many levels?

This is uncomfortable at a time when policy makers must consider the needs of students from not only an educational perspective, but also a consumer one. Perhaps it’s no wonder that institutions haven’t had much incentive to innovate further in teaching. Too much risk for not enough apparent gain.

I am a big fan of seeing universities highlight their unique traits, rather than attempting to speak for everyone. They can innovate to help students tell a convincing story that shapes future choices and success. In doing so, more graduates will retain positive links with their alma mater. The more I have thought about it, the more I see the strength in continuing bonds between an institution and its past students. More can always be done regarding this.

Finding Where Value Comes From

While universities should find every opportunity to promote access to resources and exclusive services as part of the student package, what happens outside of the university’s control is also a vital part of ensuring students see value. Perceptions that anything outside the academic work is merely circumstantial and outside the remit of fees is missing the point, regardless of how true that is. After all, policy has brought the situation to this stage, which somewhat forces matters in this direction. As long as this continues to be the case, institutions must work within the framework around them.

Essentially, fees and loans are difficult (certainly in their current guise) to link with improving and building innovation in teaching. Students already find value for money a difficult concept to grasp and are more likely to question value than to assume it. In effect, universities are not best placed to take risky leaps in teaching, regardless of how it should benefit students. Even if these innovations are made and are a resounding success in an institution’s eyes, will students see things the same way? Failure to translate at just one stage in the process could be dangerous for the provider implementing the strategy:

“…students are often not equipped to provide an informed and meaningful response to research about innovative pedagogy, especially when it involves emerging technology.” – [Considering the Smartphone Learner]

Many innovative strategies have already been made and 2012 fee reforms have brought “minimal innovation in teaching and learning“. So while the higher education sector is one which does not stand still when it comes to innovation, we should expect a slow and steady progression. Do we look to MOOCs and private providers for the latest exciting developments? Yes and no. Changes come through from all directions, but don’t assume the next big thing is a guaranteed success, nor the game-changing sector-reshaper that some hype up in hope.

Perhaps we can look at the NMC Horizon report at what they predict the future to be. However, as the regularly on-point Stephen Downes and Audrey Watters have already said, the Horizon report doesn’t look back to previous predictions and the new predictions appear to have a lot of emphasis on popular media ideas of what’s to come.

Finding it Difficult to Innovate Further

Let’s imagine for a moment that the heads of one university decide to make bold moves to separate themselves from the rest (even popular predictions, perhaps!) and turn the diversity knob to 11. They’ll soon hit a quality assurance snag since “processes are usually connected to demands for accountability, [so] risk-taking is likely to suffer in favour of ‘playing it safe'” [Source]. Guess what? Management soon decide to use the term ‘innovation’ to mean ‘better’. Much easier, that way.

In this example, I say ‘heads of one university’. Does institution matter to innovation? See point 33 of HEFCE’s Business Plan for 2015-2020:

“We are looking to develop innovative approaches that are risk-based, proportionate, affordable and low-burden. Any new arrangements must build on established strengths and good practice, and reflect the values and cultures of higher education. In fulfilling our statutory responsibilities with regard to quality assessment we have always relied on institutions’ own robust quality assurance systems, as part of co-regulation. We will continue to do so.”

What is the scope of innovative approaches that are risk-based, proportionate, affordable and low-burden? Would these initiatives be the same regardless of institution, or would impact vary? Are established strengths institution-based or indicative of the wider HE sector? This all makes a difference.

Another variable is the scope you give to innovation. How broadly does it reach? According to Graham Gibbs in HEA’s ‘Implications of “Dimensions of Quality” in a market environment‘:

“Funding for innovation, both within institutions and by national bodies, should be targetted on programmes rather than on modules and on the involvement of entire programme teams rather than on individuals.” – p.10

All in all it appears that some change could be made:

  • In analytics;
  • Through greater recognition of teaching;
  • Toward more general targets as opposed to more focused areas.

But we have already seen that much innovation has already been taking place and it does not mean that students gain the ability to grasp value for money through these new practices.

Finding the Right Perception of Value

Which brings us back to consumerist attitudes to higher education. Andrew McGettigan covers this well in The Great University Gamble. He states that HE is “not currently amenable to normal consumer experience…the benefits of the product often do not become clear during ‘consumption’ but only later, well after study has finished“.

This is echoed by Joanna Williams:

“As students are not, by definition, in possession of all the specific content to be covered they are perhaps not best placed to pass pedagogical judgement. Instead, many students equate value for money with contact time with teaching staff…Value for money may also be equated with success: if students are rated highly by their lecturers they are gaining value for money, if they receive low marks, they are not. ‘The majority of complaints were about academic status, i.e. students’ degree passes’ (Garner 2009).” [p.174]

Even when you put these arguments to one side, another challenging question arises.

Are students comparing value for money between different institutions?

This isn’t particularly feasible. The inability to compare value is problematic, since there is no way of telling whether a resounding success would have been many times more successful had a person attended a different university as a student. How would their life have differed? Also, what would the definition of ‘value for money’ be in this case? Value isn’t just subjective, it’s entirely hypothetical in nature. The only comparison that can be made is between the money spent on a degree (plus other costs) and the subsequent monetary return made that would not have been possible without that degree.

That’s why value for money in education is so pesky. And the perception of value changes over time. It’s valuable when we say so, on our terms. And if someone begs to differ, they are well within their rights to do so for that very reason.

What does value for money look like to you?

TUB-Talk – 28 March 2015

This week sees another test recording for TUB-Talk, with a weekly news drop.

Direct link to Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/universityboy/tub-talk-2015-03-28

As I say before the show starts, I’ll be pushing out a student show and a staff show, so I’d love to hear what you’d want out of an HE podcast. Would you like interviews, advice, news, opinion?

Let me know what would be of help and interest so I can make TUB-Talk just right for you.

Thanks for all the feedback so far. Keep it coming!

Here are the links to the stories mentioned in the podcast:

Social attitudes and tuition fees

Wonkhe – http://www.wonkhe.com/blogs/british-social-attitudes-survey-3-in-4-people-support-tuition-fees/
British Social Attitudes Survey (HE) – http://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/media/38917/bsa32_highereducation.pdf

Sir Patrick Stewart stepping down

Huddersfield Daily Examiner – http://www.examiner.co.uk/news/west-yorkshire-news/sir-patrick-stewart-step-down-8931509
BBC – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leeds-32086234

The consequences of cramming and all-nighters

The Tab Leicester – http://leicester.tab.co.uk/2015/03/25/this-warwick-graduate-did-his-entire-dissertation-in-one-forty-hour-sitting/
Telegraph – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/11497143/Teens-cram-revision-into-one-night-survey-says.html

Low drop-out figures

Times Higher Education – http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/drop-out-rate-remains-at-record-low/2019319.article

Value for money

Impact – http://www.impactnottingham.com/2015/03/is-your-course-challenging-you-impact-investigates/
Telegraph – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/11490809/Cost-of-a-degree-is-not-worth-it-says-Oxford-bursar.html

Schools, universities and employers building stronger relationships

Association of Graduate Recruiters – http://www.agr.org.uk/The-AGR-Manifesto

The library is my new jam

Oxford, Sounds of the Bodleian – https://www.ox.ac.uk/soundsofthebodleian/
David Kernohan on Twitter – https://twitter.com/dkernohan/status/581451309930414080

TUB-Talk Podcast Test. TheUniversityBlog turns TheUniversityPod…

With a new microphone to play with, I’ve put together a ‘news drop’ that will probably form part of a podcast I’m calling TUB-Talk.

The full podcast is likely to feature interviews, tips and lots of HE goodness.

Let me know what you think of this test by leaving a comment or getting in touch.

Link to Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/universityboy/tub-talk-2015-03-21

Here are the links to the stories mentioned in the podcast:

Recruiting More Students

http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/mar/18/almost-half-of-english-universities-plan-to-recruit-more-students-after-cap-is-lifted

New Postgraduate Loans Announced

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-31942262
http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/phd-loans-up-to-25k-announced-in-budget/2019210.article

PhD Writing Groups

http://patthomson.net/2015/03/19/4033/

Vice Chancellor Changes

http://oxfordstudent.com/2015/03/18/andrew-hamilton-to-resign/
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/19/nyregion/andrew-hamilton-to-succeed-john-sexton-as-president-of-nyu.html
http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/keele-university-promotes-deputy-v-c-to-top-job/2019217.article
http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/uuk-president-chris-snowden-to-be-next-southampton-v-c/2019223.article
http://www.mediafhe.com/pressure-and-pension-changes-drive-unprecedented-turnover-in-vcs

Simon Pegg Opens New Theatre At Bristol

http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2015/march/richmond-building.html

Reading 20 Pages A Day

https://jamesclear.quora.com/How-to-Read-More-The-Simple-System-I%E2%80%99m-Using-to-Read-30+-Books-Per-Year

Thinking Too Much About Rankings

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/11482791/Top-US-academic-slams-UKs-fixation-with-rankings.html

Forming Habits & Myths About Changing Habits

http://www.fastcompany.com/3043854/how-to-be-a-success-at-everything/the-four-biggest-myths-about-changing-your-habits
https://hbr.org/2015/03/to-form-successful-habits-know-what-motivates-you

Gretchen Rubin’s book – Better Than Before: Mastering The Habits Of Our Everyday Lives

Counter-Extremism Strategy Dropped

http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/mar/20/theresa-may-drops-rules-ordering-universities-ban-extremist-speakers
http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/mar/13/oxford-and-cambridge-unions-exempted-from-terror-ban-on-extremist-speakers

Libraries, Birmingham and the ‘Digital Game’

http://theconversation.com/we-need-to-remember-that-libraries-are-about-books-not-business-35884

Finding Work Beyond Job Ads and Agencies

http://thewritelife.com/work-from-home-freelance-writers-find-work/

Chris Brogan’s book – The Freaks Shall Inherit The Earth

If there is anything you would like to hear in the podcast, let me know. I’d love to hear what would turn you into an avid listener!

When You Ask The Question, “Are Learning Technologies Fit For Purpose?” #digifest15

“Asking the question is probably the most important thing.”

Lawrie Phipps made the point as he finished chairing a debate over, “Are learning technologies fit for purpose?”

It may sound dull, but his point was the best way to sum up the session between Dave White and Donna Lanclos at the Jisc Digifest 2015.

Earlier in the day, Anna Notaro told me that she doesn’t like either/or questions. While it does help me write short and punchy tweets, I do agree.

So, are learning technologies fit for purpose?

It’s an impossible question, as it involves individual decisions as much as it does group decisions. It involves education providers and administrators as much as it does learners.

Do learning technologies fit YOUR purpose? Can these tools give you what you want? And if you don’t know what you want, is this method working for you?

Dave White said that learning technologists and other professionals forget how experienced and confident they are. He suggested that if you could go back to when you were 18–just starting out at university–you would be far less likely to have the same drive to make your point. The nervewracking experience of speaking in a lecture or seminar consisted mainly of trying not to make a fool out of yourself. Newbies to the system don’t want to fall at the first hurdle. There’s so much at stake, or so it feels anyway.

One solution is to provide safe spaces so that students can build their confidence. This requires a somewhat locked-in approach using internal systems, rather than pointing toward online services that can publish work for all the world to see.

key

Use a VLE or use WordPress? Donna Lanclos explained that institutions have made a promise to educate their students. Learning and subsequent application of publicly used resources will provide the best opportunity for students to develop worthwhile skills. Using a VLE, she argued, doesn’t provide the same learning opportunity. Lanclos expressed difficulty in seeing why it’s so difficult to assist students in confident use of open web tools and to invest money saved from ditching VLEs on hiring more staff instead.

Questions from the audience were useful, as they looked at the flaws in the either/or questioning:

  • Something isn’t fit for purpose, but what is it? Is it the technology, is it the institution, is it something else? This needs assessing.
  • Why are we talking about a choice? You can have both a VLE and an open web.
  • We need to equip people to be competent in the open web. This requires a continuum model. Not just about knowledge in terms of content, but which technologies to use and when?
  • The reason we have VLEs is due to standards issues. Until you can bring diversity together in a reasonable format, a VLE is a practical necessity.
  • What IS the purpose of learning technologies? They are fit for purpose only if you identify what their purpose is.
  • You may want to use a social service for personal reasons, but that doesn’t mean you wish to use it as part of your course.

Lanclos said that it’s important to take responsibility for students’ learning when they do not have the understanding or experience of necessary tools. So, she continued, why is that different via the open web than through a VLE? Her closing argument stated that university is a much more holistic project than VLEs allow for. The fact they are locked in ends up sheltering students from the outside world and more practical learning.

White closed by explaining that learning technologies reflect the purpose our institutions have chosen to take. They provide a platform to frame learning around the course, rather than the individual. People can be helped through the process of education.

This takes us back to the remark Lawrie Phipps made to close the session:

“Asking the question is probably the most important thing.”

I saw neither Lanclos nor White as particularly wrong in their assertions. Such an ambiguous and open question is important because it shows how diverse the student population has become over the decades. And yet, as one audience member remarked, pedagogy over the last 20 years hasn’t been particularly transformed.

Asking the question, “Are learning technologies fit for purpose?” is a great way to continue exploring transformation that requires technology. But rather than focus on the technology at the centre, focus on the learner, on society, and on the future.