Money

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?

What Are Student Perceptions Of Debt?

This week has been National Student Money Week. So there’s no better time (if there is ever a GOOD time!) to talk about student debt. *shudder*

what are student perceptions of debt

Living costs are an issue just as much fees, if not more so. Hidden course costs, social outlay, not to mention basic needs like food, drink and accommodation; it all adds up. And the more it adds up, the more likely students are to get into debt.

Now a new report suggests that graduates may end up repaying tens of thousands more on their student loans. It’s no wonder some people are put off attending university.

While student loans constitute a special type of debt that only begins to be repaid once a graduate is earning more than £21,000, it is still seen by many as a scary debt. A debt that has little chance of going away until 30 years have passed.

Debt is a common concern

The UNITE Student Experience Survey 2014 discovered that many applicants feel in the dark regarding their finances. And while current students have a much better view of their finances, only 56% state that their financial streams are sufficient. That still leaves nearly a quarter (24%) of undergraduate respondents saying their finances are not sufficient, and another fifth uncertain of their position.

Couple this with the survey’s finding that finances are the most frequent concern for students whilst at university and it is clear that a sizeable proportion of students are not comfortable with their debt experiences.

A surprising 28% of students polled claimed not to have any debt whatsoever. Does the high proportion suggest that not all debt is necessarily considered a debt? For instance, undergraduates are far more likely to use bank overdrafts than applicants assume will be the case (28% of students, compared with 11% of applicants). Given the percentage of respondents claiming not to have been in any debt whatsoever, it could be that they do not even see an overdraft as a debt in the first place.

bank notes

Fear doesn’t always lead to confrontation

So where does that leave perceptions of debt? Although tuition fees have been the focus of much national media coverage, it is unlikely that students see fees as an area where savings can be made.

Because while tuition fees are variable, up to £9,000, institutions tend to charge close to the maximum anyway. Students do not see enough difference between universities to influence their choices. One study also suggests that bursaries and other financial incentives are rarely investigated until much later in the process, if at all.

This suggests that many applicants have background fears about debt, but do not confront them. This may be due to a lack of time, or a failure to see the importance of such a worry. One way or another, financial concerns make an impact on behaviour that is sometimes indirect and unconscious.

Money and debt are, therefore, motivators that can work in negative ways. But attitudes and perceptions are difficult to work out without detailed, lengthy, costly research.

HEFCE analyses POLAR3 codes, which refer to postcode areas where people are more or less likely to participate in higher education. We can use these to assess educational disadvantages regarding HE, although HEFCE state that POLAR3 codes are not a reliable indication of disadvantaged areas in general. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see no notable differences from respondents to the UNITE survey regarding attitudes toward debt across the POLAR3 codes.

The survey did find some differences. Those in category 1 of POLAR3 (least likely to be participating in HE) were found more likely to be thinking about their job or career, as well as thinking about their family. Those in category 5 (most likely to participate) were more likely to live in university halls than categories 1 and 2.

Despite these findings, group 1 respondents were less likely to state that their intention to live at home was driven by it being more affordable. This is backed up by research that found that fear of debt was not a reliable predictor of staying at home for university to save money. What we cannot tell behind this is whether indirect and unconscious attitudes played a hidden part in the process.

The same research, by Callender and Jackson, also stated that low-income students were more likely to see the cost of their university experience as a debt and not an investment.

This difference between investment and debt can make an impact on student decisions. A 2010 Policy Exchange report stated that it is difficult for students to make rational decisions surrounding university when debts are involved. The report said, “At present such data is worryingly thin, and would-be students are left largely in the dark about many questions that they consider to be important”.

money close up

Information alone is not enough

Fast forward to 2015 again and policy has developed that centres on providing more information to prospective students through as they form the ‘heart of the system’. From Key Information Sets to improved support services once on campus, one thing students don’t seem to be lacking in is information.

But does all this upfront information make much difference to perceptions of debt? Do applicants feel reassured by promises of good value, good resources, and good job prospects?

Callender argues that information alone is not enough to improve the student experience. She also says that the game has changed, calling the 2012/13 reforms ‘more extreme’. For those in less advantaged positions, Callender suggests that the new system is more likely to reduce their chances of entering higher education and that HE could become more elitist rather than inclusive.

It’s clear that certain perceptions of debt can lead to decisions that are not always in the best interests of the individual. What is less clear is understanding who is most at risk and how they reached that perception of debt. We may find that the same concerns result in vastly different actions. Some people will not go to university at all, while others attend but tread a careful path. Others may ignore their situation altogether until it is too late.

We should stop and think carefully about this uncertainty. It is easy to shrug off when application figures to university are still healthy despite £9k fees. But that is not the whole picture. A worrying number of students will experience university in such a way that is potentially detrimental to their participation in HE and to their future beyond university.

Debt isn’t going away, so perceptions make a difference. For those 44% of students from the Unite Student Survey with uncertain or insufficient finances, it is vital to ensure that they not only receive advice and guidance where necessary, but also gain support to improve their personal perceptions of debt.

Nobody enjoys being in debt so it is crucial that students understand different types of debt and shape their perceptions of them accordingly. Only then can students respond in a way that gives them the best chance of dealing with their situation positively.

This article arose from a data hackathon, run by Unite Students and NUS Services in partnership with Wonkhe. The dataset is drawn from the Students Matter survey conducted Dec 2013-Jan 2014 by NUS Services and published in May 2014 by Unite Students.

How Do You Value a Degree?

What does your degree mean to you?

Your answer will depend on where you are in life right now. A first year, a final year, a recent graduate, halfway to retirement? How you view your degree changes over time.

Another influencing factor is why you chose to study in the first place. Was it to further a chosen career, in hope that you could earn more with a degree, or was it simply a subject you had a deep interest in?

It’s no surprise that many students have at least a passing interest in better career prospects from a degree. This angle comes under question all the time.

Frank Field MP has obtained data from the Office for National Statistics, finding that more than a quarter of graduates were paid less than the hourly gross wage of £11.10 paid to non-graduates with an apprenticeship.

From one perspective, it suggests that a degree isn’t the only route to the best pay. You may even think it represents bad value.

But that’s not the full picture. Money is not the only goal people strive toward. If money was all you cared about, university may have felt a waste of time in the first place. Several years without moving explicitly toward cash? It’s a long game that you may have run out of patience over.

(photo by ashley rose) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

(photo by ashley rose) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The huge focus on tuition fees leads to much discussion on value for money and subsequent returns on investment. It’s understandable.

For some, a degree is a necessary hoop to jump through before moving on to something else. However:

“The value of paper degrees lies in a common agreement to accept them as a proxy for competence and status, and that agreement is less rock solid that the higher education establishment would like to believe.” – Harvard Business Review, The Degree Is Doomed

That is the view of Michael Staton, a partner at education-focused venture capital firm, Learn Capital. Staton argues that employers will find “more efficient and holistic ways for applicants to demonstrate aptitude and skill”, which will subsequently lead to devaluation of the degree.

I don’t think this will happen across the board, but I expect some firms to find new methods of selection. Many graduate programmes already invest in their own selection processes, so their reliance on a good degree is potentially more a filter than anything else. If selection processes can be made more cheaply and without the need to filter by degree results, it will no doubt be considered as a viable option.

The world changes and things move on, but the degree is not dead. It’s not doomed any time soon. Higher education will need to change with the times, but I can’t see a game-changing revolution putting a sudden stop to HE as we know it.

So despite claims over earnings and employers, I still champion university life. I have long said that your experience shouldn’t be solely about gaining that piece of paper.

A basic attitude misses too much. It’s crucial to focus on the bigger picture to make an impact. The degree is no longer standalone; it’s one part of what shapes you. The resources and connections available at university can help you achieve so much, even when it has nothing to do with the academic side of uni life.

I’m happy people have alternative choices to university, barring some specialist and technical careers. The degree is not doomed just because aspirations can be realised in other ways.

What does your degree mean to you? When I asked at the start of this post, I said that your answer can change. Perhaps it’s changed between then and now. In a matter of moments your view can move as a result of reading a blog post, or having a conversation, or being selected for something unexpected.

University provides many moments that can open your eyes. That’s why I’m not about to throw my hands up in defeat.

And, as Tom Hay says here:

Weigh up the pros and cons and make the most of your decisions, from major choices like whether or not to go to university, to small choices like which social event to go to. You’ll have ups and downs, but we all do. Don’t dwell on how things could have been in an alternative universe.

Look forward, not behind. Seek value now.

Worries that don’t go away…and how to make them go away

How different is it to be a student now compared to five years ago? Ten years? Twenty years?

The world continues to change. Your experiences are shaped by advances in technology. What you take for granted today may not have existed when you were born.

But how different are your worries compared to previous years?

Feeling anxious? (photo by jαγ △)

Feeling anxious? (photo by jαγ △)

A YouthInsight poll of more than 1,500 students has asked current students and this year’s uni applicants about their anxieties about campus life. Times Higher Education reports on the top five concerns as:

  1. Money (63%)
  2. Difficulties settling in (50%)
  3. Trouble making friends (48%)
  4. Getting on with flatmates (44%)
  5. Too much partying/drinking (22%)

There is nothing new in this list. And it’s understandable that you’d be worried about these things. For many, stepping on campus for the first time is also the first time away from the family home. The first time you’re fending for yourself in a major way.

If any of these matters are causing you anxiety, check out these links from the archives…

Money

Settling In

Making Friends

Getting Along

Partying/Alcohol

Many of your worries may be similar to others around you. The cliché goes that you’re all in the same boat when you start university. Cliché or not, that means you’re all trying to make sense of what’s new. And that’s not always easy.

Remember, you’re not getting it wrong. You’re exploring and discovering. The awesomeness can take time.

It’s worth the wait. 🙂