Do UK universities provide value for money?
Sir Keith Burnett, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield
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