English regulator will poll students to measure value for money

OfS plan comes as v-c warns government focus on graduate earnings value will ‘downgrade’ excellent universities beyond London

October 21, 2019

A vice-chancellor has warned that the government’s focus on judging English higher education through graduate earnings will “downgrade” excellent universities outside London, while the sector regulator has announced that it will measure value by polling students and graduates.

The Office for Students published its “value for money” strategy on 18 October. The legislation which created the new regulator gave it a duty to “promote value for money in the provision of higher education”.

With definitions of value for money hotly contested, the OfS says in the strategy that its “primary measure of value for money will be based on the perceptions of students and graduates”. “This will allow us to monitor progress without imposing our own definition of value for money on students,” the strategy says.

In practice, this will mean “surveying students and graduates about their views on value for money”, while gaining “additional insight” from “external research” including “studies of the Longitudinal Educational Outcomes dataset on graduate earnings”.

The focus of the government and its review of post-18 education on LEO, which looks at graduate earnings by course and by university, has brought criticism from the sector.

Sir Nigel Carrington, vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts London, told a Higher Education Policy Institute event that LEO data were “deeply flawed”, highlighting that they focused on early career earnings and did not take account of part-time earnings or self-employment.

He also said that LEO “doesn’t distinguish between different types of students in different parts of the country”, noting the disparity in earnings between different regions of the country.

Universities should engage with the OfS, the Department for Education and the Treasury so as to define value in a “much more grown-up way”, Sir Nigel argued.

The societal benefits of universities in increasing knowledge exchange, social cohesion, well-being and “money saved for the NHS” through higher levels of health among graduates were all elements of the value of higher education, Sir Nigel said.

“Many of the greatest universities in this country are not in London, they are not rich and they do not have high graduate earnings. What they have is a fundamental role underpinning the cities in which they are based,” he added.

“Saying that we should downgrade those universities because the earnings of their graduates are lower than the earnings graduates in London…is, let’s face it, completely counterproductive to the health of the country.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: OfS to poll students on value for money

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Reader's comments (4)

We already have repeated studies showing that higher education contributes far more than is spent on it in therms of the national economy. The least report from 2017 showed that in 2014–15, HE supported almost one million jobs, and contributed £21.5 billion to UK gross domestic product.​ In terms of "value for money" from the graduates' point of view, that is important, but they should be polled about 10 years on and also asked about "value for life". For instance, many of our environmental science students are not that focused on how much money they will make, but what kind of difference they feel they will make in the world. Disregarding this for a crass focus on "earnings" devalues what HE is all about and the OfS should be ashamed. But even in terms of earnings, we already have the 'Absolute Returns' report from 2018 conducted independently by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and looking at earnings data up to the age of 29. The data shows that female and male graduates are earning 28% and 8% more on average than their counterparts who opted for a different route of study after leaving school and since graduates’ earnings rise more quickly during their early and mid-careers, particularly for men, it is expected that returns will increase further once looked at over a lifetime. Why ask for opinions when we have hard data? Why duplicate studies that have been done time and again and waste more time and money?
I agree with everything you say. Shameful but not surprising really. The HE policy of this government and the "OfS" (which is an Orwellian misnomer) as its administrative manifestation is driven not by a real concern for student well-being or progress but ideological in nature: enforcing a market logic onto a common good that has value and a sector that has (should have) values beyond such a narrow definition of value in monetary terms.
'Punishing' universities based on graduate earning is a nonsensical idea. This approach assumes that the programme of study is the only significant factor that is worthy of consideration for graduate earnings. Alot of other non-HE factors also play a significant role and these include but are not limited to (i) graduate responsibility, motivation, and career aspirations (graduates do remain unemployed or employed in non-degree jobs by choice/poor decision making/low career aspirations), (ii) job stability, (iii) changing job markets, and (iv) confusing job satisfaction with income (every economist will tell you that job satisfaction is inversely related to earnings - jobs that are more satisfying to do often have more people willing to do them and hence lower the job earning). Is OfS trying to imply that people seeking satisfying occupations is less important than seeking a high paying one??
Seems to be a simplistic view of measurement. Would need to adjust for geography, industry, etc. to get a true picture. Also, likely does not get at the root causes for under-employed graduates. As a wise man once told me, "You don't fatten the pig by weighing it."

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