Recent elections have included manifesto commitments on fees – most infamously the Liberal Democrats in 2010 – or value for money, such as the Conservative's Teaching Excellence Framework. UUK itself has sought to demonstrate the impact of investment, explain how universities are funded and how income is spent as well as supporting effective use of resources. Efficiency Exchange is also helping to share best practice within the sector.
Value for money has featured also in legislative debates about the Office for Students' role in sector sustainability and value for students. There is also the ongoing uncertainty about the future fiscal climate in the run up to and following the UK's exit from the EU. The government's intention to encourage market competition, including new providers with different business models and a more limited range of provision, further adds to a picture of uncertainty for the sector.
In light of this backdrop, the UUK Funding and Student Policy Networks recently explored the issue of value for money and how the context for the debates are changing. The network members were joined by Nick Hillman of HEPI, Professor Nick Pearce Director of the Bath Institute for Policy Research, Roberta Blackman-Woods MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Universities and Sorana Vieru, NUS Vice President Higher Education, each of whom set out their views of the challenge facing the sector.
The discussion highlighted the different perspectives on the question of value for money. Students have a price tag on their studies which rightly increases their scrutiny of university spending. Whilst articulated by some as an issue of contact hours, it represents students' broader concerns about the long-term value of their education and how universities spend income in relation to issues of concern to the student body. Equally, a narrow consumerist view of value can miss the government's financial stake and wider public interest in the sector's value to the economy and society.
This can pose a problem of how to explain and justify investment decisions to different audiences. For example, the cross subsidy of high cost subjects from lower cost subjects within a single institution brings cross disciplinary benefits to education and research. Similarly, investment in physical infrastructure, such as accommodation, is essential to the long term health of institutions and the sector. But for current students, who sometimes don't get a direct benefit, these decisions may not seem like a good trade-off.
These decisions also need to take into account the commitments that a university has made to its students in an increasingly competitive market. Universities are subject to consumer regulations and need to deliver on the contract that is agreed with students. However, the extent to which an individual student's expectations of reasonable quality and value are included in this framework beyond general sector requirements are in the early stages of being explored in the UK and beyond.
All of this raises questions about what value for money means in the evolving higher education landscape. Should it be about the transaction of cash for a service and whose perspective of quality is prioritised? How can we take a longer term perspective of the impact and value of higher education without reducing this to a simple earnings metric? How are the wider social and economic impacts and benefits of a university education demonstrated and valued? Should students be involved in decision-making to help maintain confidence?
As a sector we need to think carefully about how to meet the challenge of maintaining confidence in the value of our investment decisions. Whilst it is essential that we don't lose sight of the holistic value of investing in universities, we will need new ways of talking about decisions that do not fit neatly in to a simple transactional relationship with students. Transparency is, of course, an essential element in the response, but it is not sufficient; we need new approaches that are more readily accessible to students and politicians alike, helping us to explain the decisions that underpin value of higher education.