Report on value for money leaves sector short-changed

The UK’s Commons Education Committee has surveyed many issues, but its simple-minded approach is largely unhelpful, says Andrew McRae  

November 15, 2018
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The quest to define value for money in English higher education has taken commentators down some twisting paths in the past year. It has a tendency to become all-encompassing, unlocking higher education theories of everything. The House of Commons Education Committee’s report, Value for Money in Higher Education, published last week, is a classic of that genre.

The report encompasses graduate outcomes and destination data; social justice and support for disadvantaged students; senior management pay; quality and effectiveness of teaching; and the Office for Students, the new English regulator that itself has a remit to promote value for money and that published its own report into students’ understanding of the concept earlier this year.

The committee’s report contains a whopping 28 recommendations, packed with things that universities “must” or “should” do. However, it is much slighter on how universities can be made to do them. Indeed, the whole report has the feel of someone casting a naive gaze upon a complex machine.

The committee listened to a selection of people (many, curiously, from the University of Warwick), and then decided what they felt about things. This produces a degree of wishful thinking, such as the call for the reintroduction of means-tested maintenance grants without worrying where the money will come from. Or the statement that prospective students really must take more account of the teaching excellence framework.

The approach also fails to acknowledge the massive differences between universities’ missions and objectives. Nor is the principle of institutional autonomy ever acknowledged, while the idea that overpaid managers might make independent strategic decisions seems to rather unnerve the committee. And managers are overpaid, by the way. The “system of self-regulation for senior management pay”, the report asserts, hankering for state control, “is unacceptable” and the OfS should fix it (actually, the OfS has already committed to publishing an annual list of v-c salaries, and to seeking “detailed justifications” from each institution).

Moreover, it is a peculiarly myopic exercise to consider English universities purely as educators of English undergraduates. This report says nothing about postgraduates, barely mentions research, and fails to acknowledge the civic and international contexts in which universities operate. There is not a word on international students, collaborations or league tables.

Like much of the commentary on English universities in the wake of 2012’s tripling of domestic undergraduate tuition fees, the report positions fees as individual debt in one paragraph, and “public money” in the next. This is in part a matter of rhetorical tactics, yet it only cements the report’s sense of naivety.

To be fair, its search for simple answers hits some targets. It is excellent on university admissions, rejecting unconditional offers but endorsing contextual offers. While vice-chancellors might grumble about the failure of successive governments to resist the right-wing press’ opposition to contextual admissions, this nonetheless constitutes welcome support for a good cause.

The report also trashes the use of entry tariffs in domestic league tables. This argument is somewhat more complicated, since applicants reasonably want to know about the quality of their fellow students; however, it is still useful to know that objective observers see this metric as a worthless indication of a course’s quality.

The committee is also helpfully quizzical on the mystery of where the vast expenditure that English universities are obliged to make on widening participation actually goes. And it is  bracing on the shortcomings of flexible learning – even if these points will be obvious to people within the sector.

Policy in recent years has focused unhelpfully on 18- to 21-year-olds, even as the mature and part-time markets have collapsed. The recommendations that universities “should move away from a linear approach to degrees” and that the government’s ongoing review of post-18 education might “develop a funding model which allows a range of flexible options” are hardly plotting a clear path towards recovery, but it is not as though anyone else has cracked this puzzle either.

It is unlikely that any of the report’s recommendations will lead directly to action. But there is a certain satisfaction to be derived simply from ticking all the boxes.

Andrew McRae is professor of English and dean of postgraduate research and the Exeter Doctoral College at the University of Exeter.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Naive report offers little value

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