The proportion of UK undergraduates who perceive their course as “good” value for money has risen for the second year in a row after years of decline – however, variations in perceived learning gain between different courses could add weight to the English post-18 education review’s call to shift funding away from “low value” degrees.
The 2019 Higher Education Policy Institute/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey found that the percentage of UK students who felt that their course was “good” or “very good” value for money was 41 per cent, up from 38 per cent in the previous year, and 34 per cent the year before.
The annual survey of more than 14,000 students had shown a consistent decrease in perceptions of value for money since 2012 – from a high of 53 per cent – the year £9,000 fees were introduced in England.
This year, the number of students who said they felt that their course was “poor” or “very poor” value for money fell to 29 per cent, from 32 per cent last year and from a high of 34 per cent in 2017. In 2012, the percentage of students who felt that their course was poor value for money was 18 per cent.
The boost to value for money perceptions found in this year’s survey came alongside perceived improvements in teaching quality and assessment. Of the eight aspects of teaching quality the survey asked about, six showed improvement on last year, including on whether “teaching staff used contact hours to guide independent study” (59 per cent of students agreed, up from 57 per cent last year), and whether “teaching staff clearly explained course goals and requirements” (67 per cent agreed, up from 65 per cent).
Students also told the survey that feedback on assessments was improving: approval for general feedback on progress was up to 46 per cent, from 41 per cent the previous year, while approval for commenting on draft work was up to 39 per cent from 35 per cent.
The findings might be significant in the context of the recent report from the independent panel, led by Philip Augar, of the government’s post-18 education review, which calls for tuition fees to be cut to £7,500 but for full replacement direct funding to be shifted on a subject basis to “reflect more accurately the subject’s reasonable costs and its social and economic value to students and taxpayers”.
The majority – 64 per cent – of students in the survey felt that they had “learned a lot”, and just 6 per cent felt that they had learned not much or nothing. However, there were variations between subjects in terms of student perceptions about how much they had learned.
Students on subjects that typically have a high workload were the most likely to feel that they had “learned a lot”: 80 per cent of medicine and dentistry students felt that they had done so, followed by veterinary subjects and other subjects allied to medicine. However, languages, both European and non-European, scored highly for learning gain and are subjects that typically have a lower workload.
Students on business and administrative subjects were the least likely to feel that they had “learned a lot” – about 50 per cent – followed by mass communication and documentation students and those studying social sciences. This appears to suggest that for some, “their courses may not always be stretching their knowledge significantly beyond what they already feel they knew”, according to the report.
Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said the survey appeared to reflect the fact that universities “are giving more thought to the overall student experience than at any point in living memory, and that’s fantastic”.
However, he added that tuition fees had barely risen since 2012. “It might be that £9,250 is not as much in 2019 as £9,000 was in 2012. But, if anything, universities are doing more for less.”
Mr Hillman said that the differences of perceived learning gain and workload found between subjects in the survey would “certainly be relevant” to the Augar recommendations. “Everyone in the sector takes issue with the different ways of valuing courses – such as job earnings, contact hours or TEF – but unless we think every single course at every single university is absolutely brilliant, and I don’t, we have to have our own measures of what a ‘low value’ course is,” he said. “Our survey results feed into that debate, which we have to be part of, or things we don’t like will be done without our input.”
Students in England drove the overall increase, with perceptions of good value for money rising from 35 per cent to 39 per cent this year, although there were also smaller increases on this among students in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The one group to show a decline in perceptions of value for money this year were students from other European Union countries, down from 47 per cent to 44 per cent. This could raise concerns around “how the UK university experience is viewed as Brexit continues to dominate the news agenda”, according to the survey.
The data also showed that black and minority ethnic students continue to perceive lower rates of value for money than their white peers. BME students are also less likely to feel that they have “learned a lot”, to have had a better experience than they expected or to be satisfied with access to teaching staff, the survey showed.
Among students who said their experience surpassed their expectations, the most common reason – cited by 59 per cent – was the “right level of challenge”. Whereas among students who reported a worse experience than expected, 35 per cent blame themselves for not putting in enough effort, an increase from 30 per cent last year. This rises to 42 per cent among BME students.
Jonathan Neves, head of business intelligence and surveys at Advance HE, said it was interesting that students were self-aware enough to recognise the effort they needed to put in. However, “it’s a concern that BME students are particularly blaming themselves. There’s something more complicated going on there…the BME experience is a much less positive part of the study,” he added.
Print headline: Rising levels of satisfaction could put the heat on some