tuition fees

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?

How do you make first year count enough to feel worthwhile?

After discussing whether a year at university seems worth paying £9,000 in tuition fees, I got thinking about Freshers. I’ve long said that the first year of university does count, but not in terms of needing the highest grades possible.

A recent Guardian piece quotes Nottingham student, Emily Tripp:

“It doesn’t make sense to have a ‘practice’ year in the year when you’re doing the least outside of your degree. Either make the first semester not count, or get lecturers to set practice essays that don’t count.”

With the prospect of some students ignoring the academic importance of the first year, second year can be a lot of catch-up. What could have been practice becomes time wasted.

halls of residence (photo by Peter J Dean)

Is this student kitchen empty because they’re busy at work in their rooms? (photo by Peter J Dean)

The question is, how do you make the first year count enough to feel worthwhile, yet remain focused on Fresher year and allowing a gradual development?

The ‘first year doesn’t count’ attitude has been around for years and doesn’t show signs of going away. Yet. It used to be a misunderstood concept. Now it’s resented. A mental link between fees and value does little more than annoy those who want to get on with the work. Worse, schoolchildren already fear the financial implications of university, according to a Sutton Trust report. For those who do end up attending, that first year may fuel their fears, rather than put them at ease academically.

Student experience is a changing term. Every experience is different and students’ requirements alter over the years.

The 2012 UNITE Student Experience Report interviewed over 1,200 applicants to university. The survey picks up on changing attitudes:

“University is no longer three years of partying and cruising through for a 2.2 degree. Now it costs so much, you can’t afford to waste the experience… People are now going to university with the view of the future; the ‘student experience’ is changing from socialising to setting yourself up for the future.”

Nothing too surprising there. You don’t want to waste the experience, so you want to work where it counts. There are many activities outside of the degree itself, but resentment may begin because they aren’t seen as part of the tuition fee. A student making their mark across a range of extra-curricular sessions could still feel their first year is a waste of time.

Freshers Fayre (photo by upsuportsmouth)

Taking part in many activities. But do students find value in paying for the first year at university? (photo by upsuportsmouth)

The Sodexo University Lifestyle Survey for 2012 found large numbers of students attending university in order to improve job opportunities and salary prospects. Plenty also wanted to improve knowledge in their area of interest, yet their main focus is apparently on the future.

With such an eye on life after university, the first year may feel like a case of running on the spot: you’re working, but you’re not going anywhere.

If a perceived link between fees and grades can’t be pulled apart, what can be done?

Universities could drop the first year entirely. But that’s an extreme first option and tough for institutions to implement without massive upheaval, not to mention the higher workload on academics who may have to shun research completely to deal with such a change. Two-year degrees are on offer at the University of Buckingham, so there is potential for some universities to make the move, especially those that focus only on teaching.

There’s also the option to make the first year count so that students must rely on getting good marks in order to achieve a better grade upon graduation. You wouldn’t want to aim at a bare minimum 40% pass then, would you?

But that skirts around the issue, rather than addressing it. So what else can be done?

  • Shortening need to merely pass to first term instead? – An entire year may feel excessive to many students. A single semester could be the answer. Give students room to jump off, but don’t drag it out for a third of the degree.
  • More face-to-face tutor time to explain reasons why first year does count? – Second year is a time for many to hurriedly get up to speed and develop a decent academic tone. Can better and longer quality time with tutors help first years to understand where the first year has real value? The better you work toward the first year of work, the greater potential you have when you reach the second year and the grades matter. If you average the first year with a 2:1, the coming years should be more comfortable for you than for those who average with a Third.
  • Combine the many threads of induction so it achieves a greater purpose? – When you arrive on campus, there is a lot to take in. Induction is a big deal, even if it doesn’t stop the sense of overwhelm.
    Institutions could tighten induction programmes even further by placing much importance on introductory academic development and extending that aspect of induction further into the year.
    This would still take less time than a whole year, yet–done well–would potentially help students more in the process.
    Induction is different dependent on institution, and there is already a focus on academic transition alongside everything else new. Nevertheless, continued work on a solid student introduction may be the difference between resenting the first year and taking responsibility regardless of the maximum grades under offer.
    Morosanu, Handley and O’Donovan have a great academic paper worth reading on transition and induction, “Seeking Support: Researching first-year students’ experiences of coping with academic life“.
  • Explore how ‘ready’ students are and assess needs more closely for a changing intake and higher number of students? – Admitting so many students means that universities are faced with people from many different backgrounds with a huge range of experiences. Some will be prepared for academic work from the outset, while others will need a lot of attention before they understand what is expected of them.
    The difficulty with a broad brush approach to first year is that it takes so long. One complete academic year. Not everybody requires such a lengthy run-up. But neither is it possible to shift goalposts for one set of people while leaving others behind.
    Further research should be undertaken to evaluate the current and changing needs of new students. Old methods may no longer be the right way forward, even if they stood the test of time for so long beforehand.

For me, the first year is about mindset. To rely on grades alone to judge whether or not first year is worthwhile is pointless. The fees situation gets in the way, frustratingly. Students need clarification on how to get the most value out of their experience in the early stages of their degree. However, institutions must also ensure that first year stays relevant to incoming years.

If the attitude of ‘first year doesn’t count’ remains in place for too long under this fees system, the disservice already visible for many years will prove more damaging each year it hangs around.

On Saying ‘Sorry’

When I read the headline that Nick Clegg had apologised over the Liberal Democrat tuition fees pledge, I shrugged. It’s nothing new.

I did wonder “Why now?” and found that the Lib Dem Conference is coming. Clegg’s video apology is a party political broadcast solely dedicated to when they made the pledge to vote against any type of tuition fees rise, under any circumstances.

It didn’t take long for an ‘honest’ subtitled version of the video to emerge. There’s even an auto-tune mix of Clegg’s broadcast.

While much of the Twitter response and online comments have decided not to play along with the apology, there has clearly been some playing along for laughs.

You don’t get to see many MPs saying a very direct ‘sorry’. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely that many policy wonks, student leaders and HE staff will give it time of day.

The video wasn’t made for those of us more involved, though. These things are produced in order to cover a wider public whose interest hasn’t strayed much beyond what’s in the papers and on the news. Helen Lewis in the New Statesman says, “Making the video is a bold move from Clegg”.

Will it be enough to soften up some people and bring a renewed optimism to some of the public? The reaction so far suggests it might not. And while it’s hardly scientific (and probably still not looking at a wide enough cross-section of the public), there are nearly three YouTube dislikes for every one like on Clegg’s apology video (at time of writing, 392 likes, 1027 dislikes).

NUS President, Liam Burns, said that Clegg should apologise for breaking the pledge, not making it. Clegg expressed regret in the past for having made the pledge. Has there been any regret in having broken it?

Clegg’s move is an attempt to draw a line under an issue that already had a line drawn under it many moons ago. This apology doesn’t do anything new. Votes were cast, the choices were made, the game was changed, and the situation is playing out as we speak.

That situation continues to change and we’re bound to see more policy tweaks ongoing. Think of it as the policy equivalent of the credit crunch. If enough people make enough changes and they all impact on each other, the resulting confusion will ensure that nobody knows what’s going on where, how everything is linked any more, or how to get back on track.

Clegg’s apology video is not a change in policy. Neither does it put matters in a new perspective. For a view of Clegg’s position when the tuition fees issue was still fresh, look no further than William Cullerne Bown’s assessment from 2010.

‘Sorry’ seems to be the hardest word…And for many students, ‘Apology accepted’ may be the hardest reply.

The £9k exception norm

Today’s headlines on tuition fees are promising large rises. I’m about to discuss the fees announcement. But don’t be alarmed by the numbers.

MoneySavingExpert has a guide to understanding the new fees and loans system for 2012/13 and it’s worth checking that rather than worry about the figures in isolation.

The figures sound scary, but the reality is different. Whether you agree with it or not is a different matter.

There are underlying issues that could arise due to the government selling off loans in the future, but hopefully it won’t be something we need to cover. If you do want to read more about the sale of student loans, check out Part 3 of Andrew McGettigan’s report, “False Accounting? Why the government’s Higher Education reforms don’t add up” [PDF]. It’s also worth reading McGettigan’s recent post on finances at his blog, Critical Education.

Now on to the fees announcement.

photo by Leo Reynolds

photo by Leo Reynolds

The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) has published details of university fees for 2013/14. The fees are even closer to the £9,000 cap than they already were for 2012/13, when the new fees come into play. FT’s data blog lists the full 2012/13 fees.

After financial support from all areas is taken into consideration, the estimated average fee for 2013/14 is set to be £7,898.

That’s once everything is taken into account. A potential difference of £1,102 between the adjusted average and the absolute maximum fee. Not exactly the suggested ‘market’ that was touted.

A yearly fee above £6,000 was supposed to be the exception. Many HE commentators weren’t convinced. In November 2010, I suggested that we should “expect to see the cap become the price“. It hasn’t taken long.

In March 2011, I acknowledged that finances and access agreements cannot be worked out in any short-term plan:

“It seems that, even without any changes to the proposed fees system in coming years, it’s going to take a couple of runs through the process before we get a true picture of what’s happening.” [Source]

The new fees regime for 2012/13 hasn’t even begun and the next year of fees has been set. Clearing doesn’t start for a couple of weeks, and that’s set to be different to previous years. Salford VC, Martin Hall, says that clearing is “no longer a mopping-up opportunity for those who didn’t get their expected grades to find a spare place”.

This is just the start.

It’s understandable that fees have long been the big talking point surrounding higher education since the changes were announced. Sadly, that’s been to the detriment of other HE discussions. Postgraduates, institutional diversity, student engagement, the loans system and its future, public perceptions and engagement with HE…There is so much to talk about. It’s as if fees talk got in the way of other conversations. Well, unless you were more directly involved or particularly keen on HE policy and wonk-talk!

For applicants, there is still little reason to limit choices based on tuition fees other than the occasional exception. In general, the slight differences are less important than other considerations. The new fees system was billed to give students greater choice. People would vote with their feet and not accept unreasonably high fees as a matter of course.

With fees set so close to the cap, where will those feet tread?

Many considerations are needed when making university choices. It depends on each person and why they wish to attend (including whether or not to attend at all). I’ve got a list of 50 things to think about for uni decisions. It’s not exhaustive, because that’s not possible.

Fees may not be so important in choices right now, but bursaries are still worth researching. Bursaries make an immediate impact, unlike fee waivers, because the money goes directly to the student. Prospective students should make sure they know what bursaries are available to them.

Some institutions may find new reasons to set very different fees once we’re a year or two into the new system. There’s no way to accurately foretell this because there are no direct comparisons. Also, any additional policy changes change the situation once more. And there’s still a lot of room for that to happen.

However, as things currently stand, it’s clear that fees are sitting firmly around that £9k cap. Who’da thunk it?