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?

Definitions, Markets, and Moving Beyond the ‘University’

Some concepts are so huge that they can end up meaning little in isolation. Terms like ‘the student’ and ‘the university’ are a good example. That’s why we’re unlikely to see these terms disappear.

But might we see them in a very different light as time goes on? How definitions change is up to all of us. What do you see going beyond the university?

If you’re stuck for ideas, check out what Richard Hall has to say about moving beyond the university. Take a look at Ronald Barnett’s book, “Being A University“. Read the Times Higher Education piece on a cooperative university in Spain. There’s plenty to chew over and surely much more to come.

What lies beyond?

What lies beyond?

The university as it currently is may not be what everyone wants to keep alive. For some, it emulates the market too much. For others, not enough. Whatever your view, much concern rests in the ability to see universities survive in a meaningful way.

I doubt the idea of the university will simply be replaced with a form of learning and development that is not at all based in higher education. But don’t rule out drastic alterations on many other levels, especially if limited views are applied to complex matters. We’re still in danger that use of the term ‘university’ could be relaxed.

This comes at a time when market terms and analogies are being thrust upon higher education. And when reality proves rather different to what was initially envisaged, the sector continues to undergo tweaking. Just consider the clearing and adjustment process over the last couple of years, as well as moves such as Birmingham’s choice to award unconditional offers to 1,000 applicants.

Despite increasing marketisation of HE, how much of a market is there? Some desire it more than others. If we continue to head in this direction, will aspects of marketisation and customer relations become ever more interchangeable? Will students and teachers “dissolve the symbolic power of the University into the actual, existing reality of protest, in order to engage with this process of transformation”? Will we remain in a confusing soup, or is something more definitive around the corner? What will happen?

Students don’t have an easy choice to transfer to another university or get their money back for a disappointing or inappropriate course. Giving students the label ‘consumer’ is not helpful. Jim Dickinson says that students should not be labelled as if they can only be ‘one of two types’. Learner or consumer? Why not both? Why not anything else? A consumer is not the opposite of a learner, so why set arguments up as an either/or?

I guess it’s in part because simplifications like this are easy to digest and discuss. But the devil, as ever, is in the detail. Limited views are great for soundbites, less useful for policy.

Distinctions are required otherwise the ‘student’ is erroneously deemed two-dimensional. Speaking of which, how distinct is a university?

Maxxim Consulting refers to four ‘distinct groups’ of HEIs with a little overlap and many differences. To apply a blanket market treatment to them is, therefore, unhelpful. The question is, can institutions enhance themselves and develop enough in distinctive attributes under current frameworks? Anything is possible to an extent, but that doesn’t mean they can do ‘enough’. That’s the key word in my view. Slightly different isn’t distinctive enough. Neither is it necessarily there for the benefit of the students they serve.

The final paragraph of the Maxxim Consulting report makes an interesting point:

“The student leadership also has a key part to play as the all-important ‘voice of the consumer’.”

Back to that word ‘consumer’. It wasn’t going to take long for the term to crop up again. If universities are struggling to find a distinctive edge, why should the student be allowed?

In terms of higher education, everyone should be distinct, everything should be distinct, and HE should fuel a thriving to be distinct. Not unique in every possible way, but distinguishable.

This is where the market model is assumed to help achieve great things. Yet a report by CFE and Edge Hill University (“The Uses and Impact of HEFCE Funding for Widening Participation“) has this to say:

“The perceived ‘marketisation’ of HE and increased competition between institutions could mitigate against the prioritisation of collaborative activities and/or activities that derive benefits for the wider sector and policy objectives, such as early interventions in schools.” – p.5

Less collaboration, less benefit to policy, less early years intervention… Ouch.

Moving beyond the university is anything but simple. For every decision in the name of strident consumer action and market forces, there are implications behind the scenes that can contradict all the good intentions. That’s if you assume all intentions to be good. And thus starts yet another debate.

Though it is hard to frame a simple definition to the term ‘university’, this must be attempted before anyone can move beyond it. Stefan Collini tackled this in his book, “What Are Universities For?

Markets require an element of understanding or appreciation by consumers (whoever they are in each case) in order to allow the market to continue operating. Without a market, there is no market, naturally. With this in mind, Collini makes a good point regarding the wider concept of the university:

“Part of the problem may be that while universities are spectacularly good at producing new forms of understanding, they are not always very good at explaining what they are doing when they do this.” – p.89

In addition, Collini does not see a genuine market:

“…the so-called ‘market’ is in practice a rigged framework (benevolently rigged, for the most part) which is periodically adjusted if there is expression of one or another form of discontent with existing provision.” – p.105

There seems no easy way to untangle this. There is no start point or end point. Without a solid presence, it is hard to noticably move beyond anything.

One way to move beyond may be by stealth. Martin McQuillan explains, using Collini’s book once more:

“As [Collini] points out the accelerated growth and complexity of higher education in the UK means that there is no point in its history from the mid-nineteenth century onwards that can be reasonably described as the normal state of things.  He is not in favour of a fixed idea of what a university is but rather recognises the importance of a rainbow sector that is in turn sensitive to the needs of local communities and the nation state that funds it.”

All of this suggests that we, both as individuals and collectives, can work to bring our ideas and ideals of the university closer to a reality. In recognising this ‘rainbow sector’, diversity and distinctiveness should be championed as a way forward to benefit local, national and international viewpoints.

We still don’t have a clear explanation how to achieve this. But diversity promotes more than one answer. The ‘university’ and the ‘student’ are concepts without a single definition. Which definitions do you wish to move beyond, which do you wish to change within, and which do you wish to keep as is?

Welcome to the multitude.

HE Policy: Short-term Futures and the Importance of Watching Everyone

The future of higher education is always just around the corner.

In reality, some concepts have hardly changed in hundreds of years, while others come and go so quickly they could be mistaken for a myth.

As things stand in 2013, institutions need to be ready to keep their current ground as well as prepare for growing trends in the short- to mid-term future. Long-term is a given, although my main reason to not mention it is because stakes are strangely higher in the short-term at the moment. As David Kernohan recently mentioned, “Institutional management has become an increasingly short-term enterprise”.

Whether you look at universities as competing elements or a bunch of diverse individuals, it would be wise to pay attention to what each institution is up to. A Russell Group member shouldn’t rest on its laurels, despite the perceptions of relative safety within such company. They should look further afield and pay attention to decisions made by new universities, private providers, and overseas players. Everything and everyone should be watched with interest.

Watching you, watching me, watching everyone. (Kalexanderson CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Watching you, watching me, watching everyone. (Kalexanderson CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

That’s just an example. No matter where your university hangs on the tree of esteem, it’ll be worth checking out the strategic moves of others across a wide area. Perhaps you complain that private providers are only in it for the money, but if their surprise move successfully captures an active audience it’ll be up to everyone else to catch up. For some, it may be too late to catch up:

“…as many as 20 to 30 current…institutions could become unviable if student demand continues to fall.” [THE]

The quote above refers to concerns from HE leaders interviewed by PA Consulting Group. It looks like everyone is vying for as much audience as possible. The report found the biggest major concerns were of a decline in postgraduate student demand and further reductions in funding. The biggest moderate concern was an inability to grow alternative sources of profitable revenues. Hence the continuing need for healthy numbers of bums on seats.

This may annoy some readers. “Students should not be seen as pound signs.” “Using admissions as a way to tempt people and dump them with little to speak of later is a disgrace.”

And there is a fine line. Institutions clearly need to highlight unique selling points to get a steady stream of keen applications. However, as Janet Graham, director of the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions programme, says in today’s Times Higher Education:

“…some approaches, while appearing to give institutions an edge, potentially push the boundaries of acceptable practice and fair admissions – to the detriment of the sector and the confusion of applicants.
“This carries a long-term cost, as it could harm institutions’ reputations among prospective students, parents, schools, colleges and the public. Short-term fixes must be thought through.”

In essence, a short-term view still requires a long-term attitude. All the more reason to keep track of new developments within a wide scope and at an early stage, so you can catch a glimpse of what’s playing out with time to breathe. Ish.

You may not wish to emulate particular success stories, partially in view of Janet Graham’s point above. However, you should build an understanding of what processes are working, whether they are relevant to your institution, and how you might be able to incorporate something similar into your plans.

Anything that seems dangerous or unacceptable may still contain useful fodder for your own future actions. You may be able to use it in a more reasonable way to make the point.

Plus, you can see where trends are starting to emerge. A small pool of providers may make a move toward something unusual, for instance. That’s a cue to assess what is going on and evaluate why the sudden interest is there. Always be on the lookout for clues. What looks strange today might be pretty standard tomorrow.

There is only so much you can do through surveys and studies and action groups. You won’t be first in everything. But when you’re not first, you should at least be aware so you can make well reasoned decisions to be close behind with a solid plan, rather than lag at the back in a frenzied attempt to mop up whatever is left.

Awareness also allows the confidence to dismiss some moves outright. Though mistakes are equally possible from this direction, none of us have a magical crystal ball lying around to get it right every time. Keeping careful watch and consideration is a reasonable alternative.

Question why new decisions have been made. Consider undisclosed background reasons behind why that direction is being taken. Could it work for you? Does it make sense? Is it reasonable? What’s missing? How can you find out more?

The short-term is where it’s at right now. That doesn’t mean the need for brash decisions. On the contrary, it often requires more consideration than ever.

The Possible Impossibility of Employability…

Let me guess. If you’re a uni student reading this, am I right in thinking you’d like to be employable once you graduate?

It’s probably fair to say the vast majority of students want better job and career choices as a result of their study, even when it’s not their main reason for attending uni.

At a recent Guardian seminar on employability, one question raised was that of responsibility. Who should be ultimately responsible for ensuring people graduate with better chances of employability?

The university? The student? Schools? Employers?

Should it be necessary for anyone to tick a box saying they ensure employability standards of a particular level? Or is the link between students and employability a false trail?

A delicate balance or a false trail? (photo by Kalexanderson)

A delicate balance or a false trail? (photo by Kalexanderson)

There’s no fixed definition of ’employability’. The term isn’t rigid. Either that, or it ends up sounding vague:

“The skills, attributes and knowledge of an individual which affect the likelihood of finding, obtaining and being retained in suitable employment.” [Source]

That definition was a response to a piece by David Winter. Winter followed up with a tough question. How can this likelihood be measured and how can you increase that likelihood?

There is no clear answer. But since employment itself can be measured statistically, we’re not about to see the end of analysing numbers of graduates in work and their various career destinations. Whether the detail can truly indicate individual likelihood of one thing or another is a different matter.

The increased marketisation of higher education means that universities will want to appear successful in having its graduates finding paid work. It means that students will want to attend an institution that can deliver the best rates of employment. And it means that government will want to see figures that demonstrate how amazing certain universities are in educating people where it is necessary.

False trail or not, the situation is geared up to be viewed in terms of life after graduation, even before a place at uni has been secured.

Mario Creatura said in June:

“[Potential students] will undoubtedly start to look for courses that have a proven track record in employability and prestige. HEFCE/UUK/GuildHE’s work on the KIS [Key Information Sets] is testament to this.”

However, vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, Janet Beer recently said, “I am worried about an over-emphasis by students on employability…[students want] employability, but we offer a much richer experience…We must not get sucked into thinking that we are providing some kind of production-line product”.

MIT’s Samuel Jay Keyser shares Janet Beer’s concern:

“During a recent random faculty dinner that I hosted, faculty members from the schools of science and engineering complained about the attitude of present-day students. In their view, all they want to do is just what’s necessary to get through a class. There’s no fire in the belly to get to the bottom of the subject.” [Source]

The sad thing about this is that a fire in the belly would probably be more helpful in the long run.

None of this is really the fault of students though. Neither can you blame universities for not pushing their weight. Instead, it points toward a certain lack of correlation between a degree and employability. Some things can be measured, but that doesn’t mean you can make great sense of it under these conditions.

Unistats now publishes employability statements for universities and explores the employment prospects for graduates.

The statistics are one way for potential students to choose an institution that suits them. However:

  1. It is only a guideline;
  2. There are many other factors to assess when choosing a university.

If employability is a key driver to your choices, it must also be clear that you can do a lot to become more employable without relying on a degree result. In other words, nobody is two-dimensional.

Other matters are also important, including (among approximately a zillion other things…):

  • Relationships and key interactions with others;
  • Extra-curricular activities;
  • Prior experience in your chosen field(s);
  • Examples of going ‘above and beyond’ what’s necessary;
  • Critical assessment/evaluation;
  • Examples of managing projects;
  • Publically visible achievements and/or a portfolio of professional work.

No single attribute will swing open the doors to an all-encompassing employability. Roles are different, personalities are different, everything is different. So how can employability be the same thing to all people and all companies?

A recent Edge Foundation report states:

“While there are variations in the classification of employability, there is a broad understanding of what qualities, characteristics, skills and knowledge constitute employability both in general, and specifically for graduates. Employers expect graduates to have technical and discipline competences from their degrees but require graduates also to demonstrate a range of broader skills and attributes that include team-working, communication, leadership, critical thinking, problem solving and managerial abilities.

“It is arguable that specific definitions are less important than an agreed focus on approaches to promote such transferable skills and fostering attributes that will enable graduates to find appropriate employment, progress in their work and thus facilitate the success of their organisations and contribute to society and the economy.”

It seems that individual roles and careers will carry specific requirements and expectations, while a more general overview appreciates a rounded character.

Much frustration arises because there’s no magic answer for you to explain why you’ve got what a potential employer wants. If there was, we’d all be giving the magic answer. And what would employers do then?

The big take home point here is to understand that your focus on what’s important out of university shouldn’t rely solely on the certificate you get after three or more years. You owe yourself to go beyond that. Your degree isn’t the source of awesome. You are.

Find your brand. Work your brand. Love your brand.

If the degree said it all, your CV would state where you studied, what you studied, and how you were graded. You wouldn’t need anything else.

Hopefully you agree that isn’t the case. 🙂

No matter how vague the term ’employability’ is, you’re not stuck for options. You can still make moves toward improving your lot. Big moves. As big as you want them to be.

You ready? Then take a look through these posts from TheUniversityBlog’s archive. Best of luck to you!