Do UK universities provide value for money?

As The Sunday Times reports proposals to cut fees, Sir Keith Burnett asks how we measure ‘value for money’ in education?

September 18, 2017
Inspecting a diamond

Talk about higher education and it doesn’t take long before you are talking about money. It isn’t just tuition fees and debt, and the impact these are having on students and graduates. 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 after the name-calling and accusations that universities are sitting on mountains of surplus cash, 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 the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, [whose subject level rankings were unveiled on 13 September], say that Sheffield’s arts and humanities are ranked well into the top 100 for their field globally at 67th in the world. Or because it has been led by scholars such as Ian Kershaw whose work on Nazi Germany is revered around the world. After all, the president of the British Academy Sir David Cannadine, who knows a thing or two about scholarship, told me it was truly excellent. So it must be true, right?

But in this new world of costing higher education, 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. But, at its core, the value of their history degree depends fundamentally on their ability as historians, and that can be determined only by doing the course.

So if capitalism is out, what about the “Red” side? What does a central planning approach have to offer? Is it truly a “road to serfdom”?

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. This quickly became clear. 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. A black market sprang up for the luxury for which people still yearned and the Soviet economy was driven into the ground. And 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.

You may remember, if you are as old as me, that the Soviet Union was excellent at mass producing goods of low quality. They often weren't the things people needed of course, but they were “good value for money”. Yet 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?” or “How much money will they earn afterwards?”, they are really making sure that they are not being ripped off. They are trying to get at the value for money from their child’s point of view. And given that they and their children are now bearing the costs directly, who can blame them? When a government calculates the value of a degree based on the income of young graduates, disregarding the myriad other factors that determine this, what does it say about the way they measure education? Especially when we know that family wealth and whether or not a student has the contacts or support to take up an internship in London may be the entry point to a well-paid career.

When I see the way value is being judged, my instincts as an academic scream at the poverty-stricken approach of using such crude numbers to capture real life. But a fair question demands an answer, so let me have a go from a common sense point of view, informed by working in universities for 45 years, to say why I think we need a broader approach. I want to explain why I think the current attempts to measure history at Sheffield – or any other of our subjects – simply through a simplistic assessment of value for money are a loaded and dangerous approach. Dangerous for the country. Dangerous for our students. Dangerous for scholarship.

It is dangerous for our country 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 the University of 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. This is mostly time applied to their research when they are not teaching. But we know that the amount the government pays for research has gone down in real terms over the years, frozen in cash terms since 2007. This is making it harder to give our historians the time for scholarship that they need.

If a parent wants “better value for money” in the sense that they long for their child to be taught by truly great thinkers then they need to think of education in its fullest sense. Perhaps they should be concerned at the erosion of resource for the kind of work that won their child’s university and department international respect.

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. It will be the academic reputation of the university and their subject that goes with them. It will be the network of other smart historians and their fellow graduates that will help get them a job.

And beyond employability, it will be rigour and challenge, wonder and inspiration that a graduate will take into the world beyond the university. For whatever the longitudinal education outcomes (LEO) data on long-term earnings, that will come from those who are themselves challenged, who are inspiring and inspired. In fact, their teachers need more time – not less – to realise their potential. But this all comes down to funds to pay for research and scholarship.

Which is why it isn’t just students who have questions. If you are a member of academic staff in history you are asking the same of the university management. You are asking us to make sure we are getting as much as possible resource to the department. Indeed, that matters and we in Sheffield are looking closely at that, and I know others will be doing the same.

But now we face new questions about the comparative value of subjects. We are asked about the balance between subjects and whether we use money from arts and humanities to subsidise more expensive courses in science and engineering.

That one at least is easy. In Sheffield, we do not. Costly subjects, such as engineering with the facilities these require, do have a benefactor, but it is not our historians. Instead we owe our wonderful labs and teaching spaces to the vital support of the parents in Shanghai and Delhi, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore who know without any doubt that the hard-won global reputation of our university will open lifelong doors of opportunity to their children, benefiting ours on the way.

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.

The motto of our university is “Rerum cognoscere causas”. We work in a university in which we believe that understanding the true nature and causes of things is precious. Our crest incorporates a book that balances two words: disce, doce. “Learn and teach.” We know that if we neglect our own scholarship, we undermine what we can give to our students.

As university campuses across the UK once again fill with students, I want to thank all those who are dedicated to their learning. But it is not only our students who should be touched by the fire of discovery. What we value is what they must also learn, that to be educated we must never neglect a search for understanding that has value for its own sake.

UK universities have made an immeasurable contribution to generations of students and to the world. We can only hope that our politicians will also pause and consider that our wonderful universities carry at their heart a truth that we inherited from those who came long before us and which we trust will outlive us all – that to know how much we need to learn is the beginning of wisdom.

Sir Keith Burnett is the president and vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield.

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