Poor value in higher education?

A new report out today by Which? looks at “A degree of value: value for money from the student perspective”, and suggest that a degree offer poor value.

From the Which? website:

One fifth of the graduates surveyed by Which? said their university experience was poor value for money.

In a separate survey of current students, one in ten said their tuition fees had increased part way through their course – a third of whom felt this was unfair.

The top reasons students cited poor value for money were inconsistent teaching quality, not enough support to find a good job and too few contact hours.

Too many cancelled sessions and poor timetabling were also cited as reasons for perceptions of poor value. A third of respondents said they’d be unlikely to go to university now faced with higher fees.

In addition, students were unhappy with their experience: “only half of students said the amount of work they had to do was demanding, with just four in ten saying the content of the work was stretching.Less than half said that seminars were generally worth attending and 26% said you can get away with doing little private study and still get good marks.”

This doesn’t fully tally with what we see in the NSS where overall student satisfaction increases year n year. However that is not to say that we should be oblivious to these comments.

Disappointingly, Which? perpetuate the story that a degree course is something that you buy, and that will lead you into a job, when we should help our students to recognise that HE is more than this simple transaction. hopefully many of our students are savvy enough to realise that the experience they gain over 3 or 4 years is much more transformational.

In conclusion, the Which? report calls for:

Following the investigation, Which? has questioned whether the higher education market is delivering for student and is calling for reform of the sector.

Which? wants to see improved information and advice, with government requiring universities to provide better information, improved consumer protection and minimum standards for complaints handling.

In addition Which? is calling for improved regulation that focuses more heavily on standards to ensure the market works in the best interests of students

No indication is given of how the sector should be reformed – and it has actually changed an awful lot in the last few years. Universities are already providing significantly more information on outcomes through KIS, league tables etc, but little effort is made to ensure that student become discerning consumers of information. Finally, what further regulation is needed and what “standards” are we talking about here? Either we operate in a market or we don’t – I thought the whole principle behind the Browne report was that with higher fees and increased information that students would be able to dictate the success of institutions?

Overall, not a very edifying piece of work. While no one would argue that students should be provided with good information, that they should expect certain levels of service and that they should be able to access efficient systems for redress of complaints, the argument that reform and regulation is needed is not well articulated,

However, they may be some things that we could do differently to challenge some of the issues raised:

  • minimise cancellation of classes
  • clearly to articulate all the student led study to be carried out – eg if there is a reading week, we should tell students how to use the time effectively, and describe exactly what they need to work on in that week. For a normal module, show exactly what we expect students to do on a weekly basis in their own time, rather than just “read around the subject”
  • show how a degree course can be transformational through reflection in personal portfolios or mapping of graduate attributes




Equality Unit Statistical Report 2014

Last week, the Equality Challenge Unit published its annual statistical report which considers a range of data sets from HESA, relating to both staff and students. This provides a great insight into the diversity of all the people engaged in the UK higher education sector, but also provides data against which we can benchmark ourselves for activities such as Athena Swan or Race Equality Charter Mark.

A particular interest of mine is student success and attainment, so turning to the statistical reports on students we can see the following:

-The ethnicity degree attainment gap has decreased from a peak of 18.8% in 2005/06 to 16.1% in 2012/13, and is at its lowest since 2003/04. Nevertheless, the gap in attainment compared with UK-domiciled white first degree qualifiers remains considerable, particularly for UK-domiciled black: African first degree qualifiers (with a gap of 26.8%) and UK domiciled black: Caribbean first degree qualifiers (24.5%).
-The ethnicity degree attainment gap was larger among UK domiciled first degree qualifiers who studied non-SET subjects than among those who studied SET subjects.
-In every subject, a higher proportion of UK-domiciled white first degree qualifiers received a first/2:1 than UK-domiciled BME first degree qualifiers.

ECU bme degrees 2013

So there is still considerable work to be done, firstly to really understand the causes of the attainment gap, but much more importantly, to put interventions into place that will help to remove it. Some of the ideas at our Learning Teaching conference in the summer from Dr Winston Morgan of UEL are worth revisiting.

Any university that is trying to reduce the attainment gap has to be mindful of the classification of “BME”. This aggregation is not always helpful, and students from different ethnicity may have a range of different expectations and backgrounds that may affect their engagement and success. More useful is for an individual department in a university to gain a clear understanding of its own student body, their educational backgrounds etc, and then to review past performances on a more granular level, so that all involved in recruitment and teaching have a clearer idea of what the student population actually comprises.

When students with disabilities were considered, then in 2012-13 the percentage of students with declared disabilities gaining a first or 2(i) rose from the previous year.

In addition, the gap in attainment between students with or without a disability is much smaller than for the attainment gap seen for BME students:

ecu disability 2014

These two sets of data reflect what we have seen previously at Staffordshire University – a small (and sometimes insignificant) attainment gap for students with disability,but a significant attainment gap between white and BME students.

All in all, the statistics from ECU provide some really useful background information for universities as they progress their equality and diversity agenda.


Student Engagement and Experiences

Two new publications from the Higher Education Academy which are timely.

The first is on the UK Engagement Survey 2014. 32 institutions took part in the survey which looked at how students engaged with various aspects of their studies.

From the HEA website:

Among the key findings are pronounced variations between the engagement reported by students in different disciplines. Predictably large differences were found between disciplines regarding the development of skills in numerical analysis (64% of students in European languages reported very little development compared to 3% of Engineering). Other disciplinary differences mirrored the results from 2013: 26% of students in Maths and Computer Sciences, and 20% of students in Physical Sciences, felt there was very little emphasis in the course on the evaluation of points of view and information sources, compared to 2% of History and Philosophy students and 3% of Social Studies students.

Rather than just accept these outcomes as they are, and dismiss the results by expecting a lack of numeracy amongst social scientist and a lack of critical thinking amongst engineers (nothing like a good stereotype), then maybe we can reconsider how we could use our Graduate Attributes programmes to identify these gaps in our curricula, since we know that employers do look for numeracy and critical thinking amongst other skills.

At Staffordshire University we will be running our own version of an engagement survey this year for final year students on those awards that are part of our Paul Hamlyn/HEA “What Works” retention project.

The second new publication from HEA is on “Managing the student experience in a shifting higher education landscape“, where a comparative study has been made of different types of institutions and how they have responded through management of student experience after the introduction of higher tuition fees.

From the HEA website:

“It found that the two research-intensive universities seemed to be responding to the changed environment in different ways to the other four institutions who were, in general, responding by centralising services, standardising procedures and strengthening management controls. For example, the research showed a removal of the responsibility for recruitment and admissions from academic departments, and a central determination of contact hours. Organisational change in the research-intensive examples, meanwhile, usually took the form of changing the reporting lines of student-related services to create more coherent functional groupings, rather than comprehensive reorganisations, the authors report.
Other key findings:
the case study institutions have all placed greater emphasis on enhancing the quality of teaching and learning, a process usually begun before 2012, but given added emphasis since then. The report shows that the research-intensive institutions have become more prescriptive about teaching and learning matters, usually by issuing guidelines.
there was an increased emphasis on employability across all institutional types, but with variations in emphasis. This new emphasis includes employment-related curriculum changes and enhanced support for advice and placements.
higher tuition fees were affecting the character of students’ interactions with their universities everywhere, but the tendency to treat students as customers seemed to be more pronounced with managers at the less research-intensive universities.”

I don’t think that we can be surprised by any of the results, and can reflect that as a less research intensive university that our focus has been on employability through the Staffordshire Graduate programme and with a focus on centralised student services.

The point I would take issue with is this tendency to treat students as customers. While I fully recognise that the fees being paid by students means that they expect a certain level of service, I still believe that treating students simply as customers is a detrimental move. As I have written before, higher education should be transformational, and not just a transaction. It should involve students working as partners in their learning together with the academic and other staff. When we allow students to see themselves as customers, then we see a range of negative comments on Facebook that accompany things the university does in the way a supermarket might be criticised, rather than seeing comments of support for an institution in which they have a shared investment.

Reflecting on the changed education landscape, and changing behaviours, the authors of the report say:

“These changes add up to create a higher education landscape which is both fluid and unpredictable, with major challenges for institutional leaderships and managements and their academic and professional staffs.”

The future is an interesting place.



There’s an election coming

If you hadn’t already noticed.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably work in a University, or are interested in higher education, so you know that there are more stories to tell than the tired UKIP one of immigration which all other mainstream parties appear to be trying to imitate.

A number of interesting publications came out in the last week or so, all about HE policy, and all worth looking at in more depth.

Firstly, Universities UK has launched its campaign “Back Universities” with three priority areas that it wants an incoming government to focus on:

  • Research and innovation – making the case for closing the gap between the UK’s investment in research and innovation and that of its major competitors
  • International students and immigration – calling on government and universities to work together to attract qualified international students and staff to the UK
  • Student funding – highlighting the need to develop a sustainable student funding system
    No surprise that once again the issue of international students is on the table –the recent decision about post-study work visas and the perceived lack of welcome are already having an impact on students from India and leading to the loss of income to a range of universities.

On student funding, another interesting publications came out recently. The Institute for Pubic Policy Research has published a report proposing that a student loan system should be extended to postgraduate study.

The paper publishes modelling of the costs and risks of a postgraduate loan scheme offering £10,000 for a taught masters course, to be repaid at 9 per cent on future earnings between £15,000 and £21,000, with other features of the scheme consistent with the existing undergraduate loans. The model assumes this is made available to roughly 47,000 full-time students and 24,000 part-time students.

Crucially, the modelling suggests a non-repayment rate (known as the RAB charge) of 6.9 per cent. This is considerably lower than the non-repayment rate of 40–45 per cent estimated for undergraduate loans.

In response a number of Russell Group universities have dismissed the idea, suggesting that scholarships would be a better approach, although Rick Muir of IPPR points out in the Guardian that a mass scholarship scheme would be unaffordable.

Finally the Institute for Fiscal Studies has written about the socio-economic differences in higher education.

Writing on the million+ website, our VC, Michael Gunn said:

“This research confirms that the support which universities provide for students when they are studying is crucial in terms of outcome. The report’s findings support the government’s decision to retain the Student Opportunity Allocation and suggest that those who say that there is no need for this funding are on the wrong side of the argument and the evidence base.

Student Opportunity funding helps widen access to higher education but it also provides universities with vital extra funds to support students once they have entered a course and plays an important role in retention and social mobility.”

From the IFS website:

“We find that the large raw differences in university outcomes between individuals from different socio-economic backgrounds can largely be explained by the fact that they arrive at university with very different levels of human capital. Comparing individuals on the same course makes relatively little difference to the remaining socio-economic gaps in university outcomes, with those from higher socio-economic backgrounds still 3.4 percentage points less likely to drop-out, 5.3 percentage points more likely to graduate and 3.7 percentage points more likely to graduate with a first or 2:1 than those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.”

But an interesting outcome was that the performance of the school that students had attended previously had an effect on outcome:

“amongst students with the same grades on entry to university, those from worse-performing schools are less likely to drop-out, more likely to complete their degree and more likely to obtain a first or 2.1 than those from better-performing schools.”

That last gem makes it even more difficult to work with contextual admissions, or even to assess the impact of WP policies when the performance of a school is probably not a piece of data that we capture.

All in all, it seems as though the various representative organisations and think tanks are putting out information to try to inform policy at the next election. Higher education is rarely one of the top door step conversations for canvassers, but as more and more people in the UK are university educated, and more and more are questioning the role and value of HE, then we should welcome the fact that some cogent and important arguments are being aired.

Transaction or Transformation

As I wrote in last week’s blog, there is an increasingly loud neoliberal voice driving the future of universities.

As we move into the first year where student number controls are scrapped, and the effective protectionism that they afforded to universities lower down the league tables, then it’s important that we reflect on who we are, what we are trying to achieve and how.
However this is where my personal opinions may differ from organisational thinking, but a university is nothing if it is not a place where ideas are allowed to be expressed and challenged.

As Henry Giroux (author of “Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education”) has written in a piece entitled “Higher Education and the New Brutalism“:

“Viewed as a private investment rather than a public good, universities are now construed as spaces where students are valued as human capital, courses are determined by consumer demand and governance is based on the Walmart model of labor relations…….in particular, the ideal of the university as a vital public good no longer fits into a revamped discourse of progress, largely defined in terms of economic growth. Under the onslaught of a merciless and savage financialization of society that has spread since the 1980s, the concept of social progress has all but disappeared amid the ideological onslaught of a crude, market-driven fundamentalism that promises instant gratification, consumption and immediate financial gain.”

For us to be successful, we need to be able to express clearly why we exist as a university, and what benefits that the organisation brings. We are focussed on being modern, relevant and vocationally inspired, and the VC has provided his exposition of each of these descriptors. But in marketing ourselves to potential students, to the businesses and other organisations that we work with, and to ourselves, then we should be able to provide more critique debate how we can express and enact these ideals.
The university as a concept is seen as being under siege. We are increasingly driven by league table rankings and external metrics. I don’t have a huge issue with this – many of the measures that are used are those we should all be able to sign up to – student success, satisfaction and employment. At the same time however, an over-reliance on these metrics reduces the value of higher education to a transaction between a consumer paying fees, who expects to be treated as a paying customer, and for whom an undergraduate degree course has become a rite of passage to the expected 2(i) and a graduate job.

The first challenge then is for us to learn to work with students in such a way that we can satisfy the transactional nature of education, while ensuring that their exposure to an environment where challenge of conventional wisdom, where a democracy of ideas is still valuable, so that when they do gain that 2(i) and gain a job in a widget factory we will have done more for them than provide them with just a passport to work, but provided them with a truly transformational education.

The second challenge is for us to be clear about what a university exists for today. Stefan Collini in “What are Universities For” in providing a critique of the sacred cow of Newman’s view of a university says:

“The twenty first century university needs a literary voice of comparable power to iterate in the idiom of our time the idea of the untrammelled quest for understanding”.

So when we say we are modern, relevant and vocationally inspired, we should develop a full understanding what we mean by each of these terms, and how they can be articulated beyond the immediacy of the dominant neoliberal threat to the academy.

Modern. We expect all of our students to be learning at the forefront of knowledge so that they become discipline experts, and that all of our academic staff are themselves creating new knowledge and scholarship. This is not just about training for jobs – this is about providing our students with the opportunities to engage with and in scholarship and to learn that there are limits to knowledge and that they will need to learn how to solve unfamiliar problems and challenges based on incomplete information.

Relevant. The relevance of a degree at its most reductive could be seen as being relevant to specific industries or job roles. However, when it is expected that many of the jobs that will be available in 10 years have not even been invented yet, then we have to ask relevant to what? Our degrees will be relevant solving the problems to the society we want to live in. To be relevant our graduates will need to be able to provide critique and challenge to the status quo, and take their place as true global citizens.

Vocationally inspired. Are we in danger of reducing higher education to the role of training students for the world of work? The evidence about the improved life chances of people who engage in HE shows that the gains are much broader than getting a job. We need to ensure that our students are employable, but that doesn’t just happen through awards that are vocationally inspired. If it did, then hardly anyone with a humanities degree would find work, But they do. Employers recognise that these students are able to study and engage in critical debate at a high level and have spent a number of years working with others who are clever and engaged – just the kind of people that employers want. We need to avoid dangerously reinforcing to the outside world that we are just a part of the process of producing workers for employers. As an institutional do we want to subscribe to the idea that the degree has become a transaction – you pay us £9000 a year, and you’ll get a better job because of it? We know that HE is transformational and not just a simple transaction.

The vandals seem to be at the gates, and perhaps understandably so after a long economic depression where utility has become the most sought after prize, but this is the time that we need to reiterate what we stand for. We are, and always will be, modern, relevant and vocationally inspired – we need to explore the full range of what these things mean, and looking at our definitions of gradate attributes we can see how we can start to create a broader definition for success as one of our graduates.
(note – this is acting as a working draft of a paper on Transaction vs Transformation)

International Students – Cambridge VC speaks out

Reported in this week’s Times Higher is the fact that the VC of Cambridge has spoken out against the parochial attitude of government to international students:

“As the v-c of a global university, I am encountering attitudes and policy decisions which seem ever more parochial and positively detrimental to the work of the higher education sector. More importantly, they are likely to damage British national interests and our global standing.”

While everyone in the sector should welcome these comments, I’m still concerned that the message is not being heard clearly enough by government, and that there is no move as yet to remove international students from net migration figures.

Others have also spoken out against this (but maybe because they’re not the VC of Cambridge, their comments weren’t widely reported). For instance our own VC in his role of Chair of million+ has said at the Conservative party conference:

“The Conservatives should match Labour’s commitment to take international students out of the net migration figures but that’s not all: the compliance regime being applied to universities and education providers by UKVI – the Visa and Immigration agency – is partisan, differential and opaque. A Conservative government should also review this as a matter of urgency.”

And at the Labour conference:

“We welcome Labour’s commitment to take international students out of the net migration figures but this is only part of the solution.

And let me be crystal clear here: the compliance regime being applied to universities and education providers by UKVI – the Visa and Immigration agency – is partisan, differential and opaque. A Labour government would also need to review this as a matter of urgency”

A bit disappointing that these two speeches were under-reported, as we as a sector need to demonstrate that issues such as international student visas affect all institutions.

A quick look at the recent HESA data on student numbers shows the impact that current policy has had – large numbers of students from India in particular have voted with their feet and chosen not to come to the UK to study, while the change in post study work visas has not had such an impact on recruitment from China, where numbers have increased:

chinese-indian students

In fact overall the numbers of international students still wanting to study in the uK has hardly changed, with this growth in Chinese students more than offsetting the decline from India.

As well as considering how as a sector we continue to make the argument to government the benefits of international students (both economic and the non-economic impacts on institutions and regions) we should also remind ourselves of the research by Hobsons on what international students are looking for, so that we can align our recruitment policies and practice to satisfy the demand.