Do UK univer­si­ties pro­vide value for money?

Sir Keith Bur­nett, pres­i­dent and vice-chan­cel­lor of the Uni­ver­sity of Sh­effield

THE (Times Higher Education) - - LETTERS -

Talk about higher ed­u­ca­tion and it doesn’t take long be­fore you are talk­ing about money. It isn’t just tu­ition fees and debt – it is also the ques­tion of value. Is higher ed­u­ca­tion “worth it”?

Now, de­spite the fact that the UK tops the global rank­ings for univer­si­ties, politi­cians are wor­ried. They know that young vot­ers are an­gry about the re­moval of pub­lic fund­ing and the costs that now fall to them. So the fo­cus is now on grad­u­ate salaries and value for money, with the value of arts cour­ses in par­tic­u­lar un­der scru­tiny.

Which poses the ques­tion. How do I cal­cu­late the value of a de­gree in his­tory? How do I cal­cu­late the value of any­thing? My thoughts of course im­me­di­ately go to my own Uni­ver­sity of Sh­effield. I think of a sub­ject such as his­tory, which I know is won­der­ful and not only be­cause Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion World Uni­ver­sity Rank­ings say that Sh­effield’s arts and hu­man­i­ties are ranked glob­ally at 67th. After all, the pres­i­dent of the Bri­tish Academy Sir David Can­na­dine told me it was truly ex­cel­lent. So it must be true, right?

But should I re­ally care about what he thinks or about the as­sess­ment of peers around the world? Shouldn’t I just be ask­ing: “Is his­tory at Sh­effield value for money?”

If I was a free mar­ke­teer I would sim­ply use the price that I can charge to mea­sure the value. So far in UK higher ed­u­ca­tion the price has in essence been fixed, so we couldn’t use that to find out the value and need an­other way. In any case, far bet­ter eco­nomic thinkers than me have said ap­ply­ing mar­ket eco­nomics to ed­u­ca­tion is com­pletely wrong-headed. Stu­dents are not buy­ing a prod­uct with known char­ac­ter­is­tics, but an ed­u­ca­tion and the many life­long im­pli­ca­tions that will de­pend in part on their own cir­cum­stances, char­ac­ter and op­por­tu­nity.

So if cap­i­tal­ism is out, what about the “Red” side? What does a cen­tral plan­ning ap­proach have to of­fer? In the old days of the Soviet Union, fol­low­ing the pre­cepts of Marx­ian eco­nomics, politi­cians used to cal­cu­late the value of all things, yes ev­ery­thing, in terms of the ef­fec­tive amount of labour it took to make them. You can see the at­trac­tion of this idea with its ap­peal to jus­tice and trans­parency.

There was a prob­lem, though. It may be straight­for­ward to find out the cost of mak­ing some­thing in hours and skills, but it is damned hard to es­tab­lish value. Although Soviet eco­nomic plan­ners tried all sorts of ways to mea­sure goods – in­clud­ing not just the hours worked, the skill of the worker, the com­plex­ity of the task and the prod­uct – some­how they killed the good they wanted to pre­serve. Mea­sure­ment and plan­ning quickly bor­dered on ab­sur­dity; those on the re­ceiv­ing end tried to game the sys­tem and the Soviet econ­omy was driven into the ground. If we try to mea­sure higher ed­u­ca­tion in terms of an ever more com­plex set of met­rics that es­tab­lish “value for money” we will find the same.

This de­sire to pin down value is in­fec­tious and we can’t blame those who are drawn to it if we don’t ex­plain what is re­ally at stake.

So when a par­ent asks, “How many con­tact hours does my kid get at uni­ver­sity?”, they are try­ing to get at the value for money from their child’s point of view. Given that they and their chil­dren are now bear­ing the costs di­rectly, who can blame them?

When I see the way value is now be­ing judged by some, my in­stincts as an aca­demic scream at the poverty-stricken ap­proach of us­ing such crude num­bers to cap­ture real life.

It is also dan­ger­ous be­cause we need good in­sights into our world, not phoney ones. They come from the very best his­to­ri­ans, schol­ars of the kind you will find at Sh­effield. These are pre­cious peo­ple in de­mand across the world. It takes them many years to be­come true his­to­ri­ans and they need a lot of time to read and to think. What aca­demics do when they are not teach­ing mat­ters for our stu­dents be­cause their fu­tures will de­pend on our rep­u­ta­tion many years ahead. A stu­dent may have lots of con­tact hours but that is not the ques­tion that will be asked in an in­ter­view. Their job prospects will be based on the aca­demic rep­u­ta­tion of the uni­ver­sity and their sub­ject that goes with them.

How do we mea­sure value in a sub­ject like his­tory? Not by sim­ply adding up the sum of its parts – teach­ing hours or the salaries com­manded by its grad­u­ates. No, if we think like this we re­ally will murder to dis­sect.

Stu­dents are not buy­ing a prod­uct with known char­ac­ter­is­tics, but an ed­u­ca­tion and the many life­long im­pli­ca­tions that will de­pend in part on their own cir­cum­stances and char­ac­ter

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