More adventures in the search for value for money

This is the 12-inch version of my 7-incher in the ‘THE’, 15 November 2018. Editors do tend to fret about things like words and – well – accuracy. Here’s to artistic freedom.

 

The past was a simpler time; governments controlled universities then. This nostalgic fantasy, at the heart of so much public discourse about higher education, is articulated with admirable energy by the House of Commons Education Committee in its recent report, Value for Money in Higher Education. Its list of recommendations stretches to twenty-eight, packed with things that universities ‘must’ or ‘should’ do, but somewhat slighter on quite how they can be made to do so. It demonstrates at once the shortcomings, but also some benefits, of a quest for simplicity.

 

Rage against the machine

The quest to define value for money in higher education has taken many commentators down some twisting paths in the past year. It has a tendency to become all-encompassing, unlocking a higher education theory of everything. This report is a classic of this genre, setting out to consider value for money from the perspectives of: graduate outcomes and the use of destination data; social justice and support for disadvantaged students; senior management pay; quality and effectiveness of teaching; and the role of the Office for Students.

As with any research project, the Committee’s methods, for better or worse, lead to its conclusions. These methods boil down to listening to a bunch of different people. Hence the common structure: ‘we heard X say this, Y say that, Z say the other, and we think A’. Sometimes ‘A’ feels like wishful thinking: such as when they call for the reintroduction of means-tested maintenance grants, without having to worry about where the money comes from. They also acknowledge that prospective students take no notice of the Teaching Excellence Framework, yet conclude that, ‘For the TEF to improve value for money … it must play a more significant role in the decision-making process of applicants.’ Well, quite.

Granted, there are some steps in the right direction. The Committee has grasped that the debate over two-year degrees is rather more complex than some may have thought this time last year. The costs are not significantly lower, these degrees offer little opportunity to earn money or gain work experience along the way, and therefore they do not offer a magic solution, especially for lower-income students. But elsewhere the report strains against the weight of evidence. On the TEF, for instance, they heard that it is costly and arguably does not assess quality at all; however, they conclude only that it requires a little ‘embedding’.

But the method is not helpful for understanding massive differences between the missions and objectives of different universities. The concept of institutional autonomy is foreign to this report, and the idea the overpaid managers of universities might make independent decisions rather unnerves them. Hence, they note, ‘We are disappointed that institutions such as Oxford University are not offering degree apprenticeships’, and they ‘encourage’ universities that are wary of admitting applicants with BTECs and T-Levels to think again. And managers are overpaid, by the way; the ‘current system of self-regulation for senior management pay,’ the report asserts, hankering again for state control, ‘is unacceptable’.

Above all, the Committee’s approach eschews complexity. It is a peculiarly myopic exercise to consider universities purely as providers of undergraduate education to home students, and as a result to focus entirely on what happens to those students’ fees. This report says nothing about postgraduate students, barely mentions research, and fails to acknowledge the international context within which universities operate. It nods once towards Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, on ‘the international outlook of many of our most prestigious universities’, but moves swiftly on. (One is left with the impression the MPs didn’t much warm to Richardson.) But international students? International collaborations? International league tables? Not a word to be said.

 

Trust us: it’s simple

Like much post-2012 commentary on universities, this report positions fees as individual debt in one paragraph, and ‘public money’ in the next. This is in part a matter of tactics; it suits the argument at different times for the money to be either that of the individual or the taxpayer. Yet the impression it gives is of someone turning a naïve gaze upon a complex machine, and looking for simple answers. To give it some credit, sometimes it finds them.

For example, it’s excellent on university admissions. It comes down against unconditional offers, but firmly in favour of contextual offers. On the latter point, some vice-chancellors might mutter darkly about the failure of successive governments to stand up to the Daily Mail on this point, but it is nonetheless welcome support for a good cause. And the Committee trashes the use of entry-tariff as a measure in league tables. That argument is somewhat more complicated, since applicants may reasonably want to know about the quality of those they with whom they will learn; however, it’s still useful to know that objective observers, like many academics, see this metric as a worthless indication of a course’s quality.

Their perspective is also bracing on flexible learning, even if these points will be obvious to most people within the sector. Policy in recent years has focused unhelpfully on 18-21 year-olds, even as the mature-age and part-time markets have collapsed. Their recommendations, that universities ‘should move away from a linear approach to degrees’, and that the current post-18 review might ‘develop a funding model which allows a range of flexible options’, are not exactly plotting a clear and easy path towards recovery. But it’s not as though anyone else has cracked this puzzle either.

 

Much has changed over the fourteen months through which the Commons Education Committee has turned its mind to these matters. Indeed much of this report feels tired and wistful, not only for an era when overseeing universities was more straightforward but for days when this Committee was setting an agenda. Hence, perhaps, its unwieldy number of recommendations. It’s not likely that any will lead directly to action, but there’s a certain satisfaction to be derived simply from ticking all the boxes.

 

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