The higher education sector is good at promoting what we can do for our students. We’ve got the facilities, the expertise, and we understand what makes a great student experience. We promote the idea that the overall value for students are those transformative years that turn them into global citizens who are able to contemplate uncertain futures.
But today’s prospective students are savvy. They want to know exactly where their money is going, how it will benefit them, and they want to know if their education is worth the debt.
What our sector needs is to complete that long-overdue cultural shift towards universities thinking and acting like businesses. At the very least, if you can’t subscribe to the notion that you are a business, you need to recognise that we are certainly in the business of education.
As former UK universities minister Sam Gyimah said at a conference I was at last year, “If universities have got their business model wrong, they will fail.” That was the first time I had heard an HE minister refer to a business model applying to a university.
The University of Central Lancashire’s turnover is £230 million. It’s not a hobby; it’s a major financial entity, managed with appropriate due respect for the academic endeavour.
Whether we agree with it or not, the narrative around university education now is very much about preparing our students for the world of work, and thus quantifying their success and value with the jobs that they secure and salaries that they generate. But what the sector really needs is to make a conscious effort to go beyond the reductive notion of graduate salaries being an indicator of success.
Instead of trying to justify a £50,000 student loan against a £24,000 graduate salary, we need to take responsibility for the mixed messaging around student funding. I am still not confident that students, and their families, understand that the cost of the student experience is only repayable when you can afford it – that a student loan is not a debt like a credit card or a mortgage, with fixed payments that continue irrespective of circumstance. It is up to us to communicate this.
Selling our strengths to the taxpayer
Universities nurture talent, grow knowledge, find solutions, and ultimately create the workforce of the future. That in itself is of great value to the taxpayer. For a long time, this was enough to justify the cost. But in increasingly uncertain times, the spotlight is on us to prove our worth.
We are great at reaching out and attracting prospective students, and keeping current students happy, but we should be doing much more to highlight how a university is a community asset, and a place of opportunity for the landscape around it.
For universities such as UCLan, which are local recruiters and where more than 80 per cent of our students come from the surrounding area, we turn our local young people and mature students into professionally qualified, capable workers, who tend to stay in the area. This in turn adds immense value to local regeneration, workforce development and capability.
Post-92 universities such as UCLan tend to be in places that retain their graduates. They contribute vastly to the local economy, as well as being a major employer and, I should add, a good neighbour that opens ours doors to the community and gives access to the infrastructure that we too enjoy.
For example, during my time as registrar and secretary of Goldsmiths, University of London, the proposition to close Lewisham hospital was announced, making national headlines. The university, while not becoming politically involved, immediately opened its facilities to the local community, who were very actively opposing the closure.
Another example is at UCLan’s Burnley campus, where external groups use the facilities and engage with the university as a local stakeholder and placemaker. Universities with theatres and sports facilities will often make them available to community groups at a reduced rate, or free of charge.
Our world-class university system is underpinned by significant public funding, and increasing investment by students. It is crucial that we continue to do all we can in trying to both define and evidence value for money, and highlight that public funding and graduate contributions are used as effectively as possible.
Liz Bromley is deputy vice-chancellor, corporate, at the University of Central Lancashire. She will be discussing value for money at the Higher Education Partnership Network, taking place in Milton Keynes on 30 April and 1 May 2019.