Higher education needs an answer to the value question
Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe.
Value for Money
With all the sound and fury over Augar, it’s easy to forget that there is an independent review of TEF going on. Indeed, as former universities minister Jo Johnson rather plaintively pointed out in a Commons debate, the Augar report had very little to say about TEF. Yet the recommendations of the Augar review and the existence of the TEF are all part of a policy climate in which higher education is having to confront questions of “value” to an unprecedented extent.
In response to the Augar review Johnny Rich , Sarah Stevens and Andrew Boggs , among others, have written persuasively, and often movingly, about the limitations of graduate salary data in making a meaningful assessment of the value of higher education. At a recent HEPI conference universities and science minister Chris Skidmore said that any assessment of the value of higher education should include social value as well as economic value, a comment that will no doubt be welcomed by the sector.
Reason to value
These commentators are, of course, technically correct – there is all kinds of evidence available on the wider social value of higher education, and what right has the man in Whitehall to judge over a student making a choice about their future anyway? But standard defences of value are like bringing a knife to a gun fight. They frequently either rely on the power of individual stories of personal transformation, or on general statements such as “graduates are more likely to volunteer”, dismissing the grounds for questioning the value of higher education.
Yet these questions are not disappearing; if anything they are proliferating. Witness last year’s Commons education committee report on value for money: “Better information on graduate outcomes must lead to a greater focus in higher education on outputs and outcomes. Higher education institutions must be more transparent about the labour market returns of their courses.” The centre-right think tank Onward in a report published earlier this year said , “the bottom 10% or so of [higher education] courses are showing limited economic value, and it’s not clear they’re generating any other value that would justify the amount we spend on them.” The annual HEPI/Advance HE student academic experience survey is widely referenced as evidence that, when asked, the majority of students do not consider themselves to be securing adequate value for money – in the 2019 survey only 41 per cent of students agreed.
In considering value, higher education has to answer two questions. The first is the dinner party question: if my child has gone to university and only has six lectures a week, just what is it that we’re paying for? The question may be grounded in ignorance of the specifics of the higher education endeavour, but it is also a reasonable one, especially in challenging economic times when parents may be making considerable sacrifices to support their child at university.
The second is, if the economic returns to higher education are genuinely variable and can neither be guaranteed, nor predicted accurately at the individual level, nor are in the control of higher education providers, and we are uncomfortable with locating value in economic returns in any case, what are our grounds for the generalised claim that higher education is worthwhile, especially for those individuals with lower social and economic capital who are not backed by family support? Even more so if it turns out that the social returns to higher education are equally variable and equally influenced by pre-existing social and economic background.
Questions of value are not confined to the world outside universities. Respondents to our recent Wonkhe 360 survey expressed anxiety about the ability of universities to offer a clear narrative on the purpose and value of higher education to an increasingly diverse generation of students. Some had concern about the ability of students to gain value from higher education and others spoke of the tension between students’ social and ethical values and their transactional approach to higher education. More nuanced than simple money-in-money-out calculations, certainly, but tapping into essentially similar concerns.
Few would disagree that it is legitimate to ask universities to evidence their value, make themselves accountable (to students, their families, and the public) and to strive to deliver teaching excellence, but many disagree about how this can be done authentically, and in alignment with academic values. The answer, I think, lies in how we understand and talk about teaching and learning. Which brings us back to the TEF.
Dimensions of teaching excellence
The architecture of the TEF picks one aspect of teaching excellence – student outcomes. While there is every reason to value student satisfaction, retention and employability, and these may be useful signals to indicate the health of the learning environment, they capture much that is not in the control of higher education providers, and capture it well after there is scope to make an intervention. Useful but insufficient – and less reliable the smaller the student cohorts involved.
There are other ways of thinking about teaching excellence, and the marketing literature exemplifies the input-led approach. State of the art facilities, engaging programme design, a well-stocked library, comprehensive academic support and a lively programme of co-curricular activity – these supply the conditions for value to be created, but they can’t guarantee it.
As the HEPI/Advance HE student academic experience survey demonstrates, there is a close alignment between perceptions of high-quality teaching and perceptions of value. In higher education, securing teaching quality generally looks like professional development and recognition of teaching staff, support for pedagogical scholarship and innovation, frequently involving students as co-creators, and the development of a community of expert practitioners.
Support for the principle of the TEF is rooted in the understanding inside universities that teaching practice flourishes when measures to raise the public profile of teaching create the incentives to invest in pedagogic development. Yet so much of this work takes place within a community of experts talking to one another inside and between universities – the public has only minimal understanding of what teaching expertise looks like in higher education. So simply pointing to the existence of a community of practice fails the accountability test.
Meanwhile, the most reliable proxy for educational gain we have – student engagement – has fallen out of favour, possibly because it does not fit the policy narrative of university accountability very well. On the face of it it makes very little sense to base judgements of teaching quality on whether students themselves are showing up and putting the work in. Yet students that put in the effort to their learning will inevitably gain greater value from higher education than those that do not. Moreover, frequently the conversation about teaching excellence stalls at the barrier of student lack of interest. If students are determined to be “instrumentalist” and care most about getting the grade with as little effort as possible, can universities really be held accountable for that attitude?
These students are rubbish, bring me better ones
Any coherent defence of the value of higher education has to be located on its effect on students. You can have the shiniest buildings, and the most expert staff, but if students are not persuaded their effort is worth it, they won’t get the value. What can no longer be assumed, as one of our Wonkhe 360 respondents pinpointed, is that students show up already convinced of the full range of possibilities of the value of higher education and, I would add, prepared to take on trust the capability of the academics who are educating them to deliver that value. Students need to know both that their effort is worth it, that those who are educating them believe and can articulate why it is worth it and, perhaps, that they themselves are worth it. Fear of failure and low self-esteem can be a powerful motivator to instrumentalism, perhaps more so than the consciousness of the investment of money, though the latter is easier to talk about.
It’s also easier to talk about grades and jobs than about the more abstract value of higher education, which could be why some students think grades and jobs are the point of it all. I personally like the idea of “powerful knowledge”, as advocated on Wonkhe and elsewhere by Paul Ashwin, and Amartya Sen’s “capability” approach, which has inspired Melanie Walker, among others, to argue that higher education increases our personal agency, choice and freedom. I also like the idea of professionalism and the potential for leadership that “graduateness” invokes.
All of these ideas speak to enhancements to individual’s potential to influence the world for the better, to shape careers and take on work they find meaningful and purposeful, and bring creativity and imagination to workplaces and communities. They are developmental rather than absolute, and they incorporate both social and economic value. But the specific basis of the claim for value is arguably less important than the encouragement offered to academics and leaders of learning and teaching to identify the appropriate claim for value for their institution, subject, or programme of study, to design it into curricula, and then to find ways to evidence and advocate for that value in ways that are meaningful to students and to the world at large. It’s only a hunch, but I wouldn’t be surprised if by doing this work, universities would also see that much-desired uptick in satisfaction, retention, and employability.
The TEF is taking up time, resource and desk space in universities across the UK. What if all that effort was going into, well, demonstrating teaching excellence, value and accountability?