Defining value: without expensive research, there’s no ‘higher’ to higher education


Higher education is expensive.

It is more expensive, in fact, than many people realise because many of the costs of higher education originate with a set of activities that are not well understood by outsiders. Teaching in its strictest sense is only one part of these costs. The most obvious other costs include research and public engagement.

There are two important points to be made that are lost in the current frenzy to assess whether higher education is “good value”.

The first is that if universities were not engaged in research and public engagement activities, there would be no “higher” to higher education. There is something special about the opportunity to study not simply with people who are excellent teachers, but with those who are at the cutting edge of developing new ideas about a subject. This kind of teaching is special, and it is expensive.

Similarly, there is something special about being part of an institution that has a broader responsibility to the public to lead evidence-based conversations, to intervene in political and social debates, to sponsor art and literature, to develop new technologies and make scientific discoveries. But, again, this is very expensive.

The second is the question of who gets to decide whether all of this is “good value”. Today’s story from the National Audit Office points out that just one in three students think that their degree is good value. I am not surprised. A student today pays up to £9,250 a year just for their tuition. This is a lot of money. On what basis can that student decide whether this is good value?

Let me suggest an analogy. Anyone who has lived in a country where healthcare is fully privatised will know what it feels like to realise just how expensive essential medical treatment is. If the UK government openly took the decision to privatise the NHS (which is a different proposition from the stealth privatisation of the past 20 years), one of the first things that would happen would be a newspaper campaign against rip-off doctors.

It would not matter that the vast majority of the cost of healthcare goes on facilities, equipment, medicines and insurance policies, because most people do not understand the cost of all these things. Patients are not customers. And neither are students. They are not “always right” and the value of higher education is not for them alone to decide. It is a question of the benefits that research and teaching bring to society as a whole.

Academics and universities are partly to blame. We have not done a good enough job of explaining what is special about “higher” education. Our students do not recognise the value of the unique privileges of being taught by leading researchers and of participating in public bodies that lead conversations. We could do much more to help them understand this.

But the fault is not entirely with the universities.

This discussion is the obvious and inevitable result of the introduction of tuition fees: placing the cost of universities on the shoulders of students encouraged in the belief that higher education exists only for their benefit. Asking them if they consider it good value confirms that we believe that they are capable of judging this. “Satisfaction”, after all, is not the same thing as “learning”.

And education is not a pick-and-mix market.

What comparison can students make to ascertain whether their education is good value? School, as I have tried to show, is a bad comparison, as schools do not perform the same functions as higher education. What about other universities? Perhaps the two-thirds of students who think that their education is bad value are comparing themselves with peer experiences? If so, this would be a good indication of what nonsense the measure is, suggesting that student perceptions are systematically dissatisfied, with students perceiving another’s experiences as better value than their own.

Or perhaps they are aware of the elephant in my blog post: the fact that England now has the most expensive tuition fees in the world?

But before jumping to any conclusions about the significance of this statistic, it is worth pointing out that England now has, in some senses, a completely different fees system to either Europe – where most universities retain the system of nominal fees that used to exist in the UK – or the US, where a few institutions charge exorbitant fees, many state universities charge fees below the English rate, and a range of other providers charge a lot less.

The fact that almost all English universities chose to charge the top rate offered by the government means that average fees are more than in the US. But in the US, a great many institutions of higher education are not performing the roles in research and public impact that almost all British universities carry out.

We could have that here, too, if that’s what the students and the newspapers whipping up this dissatisfaction want. Would they regret what we have lost once it is gone?

Author Bio: Will Pooley is a lecturer in 19th- and 20th-century Western European history at the University of Bristol.