Value for money in Higher Education

This week I read a typical British press headline: “Students Complain of ‘Poor Value for Money’: Almost one in three students at UK universities say their courses are not good value.” As so often in the media the glass is one third empty rather than two thirds full. We do have some outstanding universities that provide an undergraduate education second to none and we must not forget it.

This said any customer satisfaction survey where a third of respondents are unhappy is a cause for concern. I suspect a good deal of undergraduate dissatisfaction is down to the relationships between price and expectation; the more you pay for a university education the more you expect in return.

When I started at Oxford, university education was free. Since I wasn’t paying I was prepared to go with the vagaries of the system. Tutorials with substitute post-graduates rather than the promised professor were acceptable and a light timetable of lectures meant more time for social engagements. Most of all, the underlying culture that education was something you did for yourself rather than a service you consumed was rightly seen as good preparation for life.

The introduction of university tuition fees has changed student views. Undergraduates no longer enjoy free education, but are fee paying customers and as such want tangible returns for their £9,000 p.a. investment. Universities are effectively becoming like independent schools, and the more they charge the more students and their parents expect them to deliver. This cultural change sits at odds with traditional university values where academics can prioritise research over teaching, and where students are proactive learners finding out things for themselves, rather than receptive consumers of university produced revision notes and online lectures.

This tension is something independent schools know all about. Hard pressed parents making significant financial sacrifices to pay school fees rightly expect independent schools to pull out all the stops to help their children succeed. This naturally does mean providing excellent lessons, outstanding pastoral care, and a wide variety of extra-curricular opportunities; but it does not mean giving pupils all the answers in return for the fees. Education is not a service that can be passively consumed; it is a preparation for life that requires students to be motivated and eager to drive their own learning experiences. Students need to be enthused, guided and supported along the way so that individual potentials are realised, and this is where the best independent schools and universities merit their fees.

The marketisation of universities is certainly affecting the way they operate. Some universities are providing an excellent service which is good value for money, others appear to be struggling. Such institutions may benefit from talking to independent schools, who have years of experience in striking the right balance between charging a fee and providing a service, whilst still recognising that education is a process of give and take. Students who passively consume course materials will never do as well as those who proactively take responsibility for their learning and supplement course materials with their own ideas and reading.

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