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Do universities offer value for money - what's the price they pay for not engaging?

Do universities offer value for money - what's the price they pay for not engaging?

Research Manager Darren Wake has vast experience of conducting research in the Higher Education sector, in this article he examines students perceptions and expectation aligned to value for money, and explores how understanding student experience and engagement can underpin universities success.

One cannot deny that higher education has expanded from being an elite market to one that caters for the masses. Fifty years ago, only 5% of people went to university, now it is over 40%. Whilst the higher education sector creates undoubted value for the economy – both locally and nationally – the financing model for students themselves has changed considerably over the years.

With the introduction of tuition fees for all, and a majority of institutions and courses charging the maximum fees of £9,250 per year for undergraduate programmes, students are leaving university with record levels of debt. The Institute of Fiscal Studies reported that students in England are going to graduate with average debts of £50,800, whilst those from poorest backgrounds who have more loans available to support them, will leave with average debts of over £57,000.

Undoubtably mind boggling numbers, and figures which are sure to make both young people and parents possibly think twice about university as an option for them or their child.

However, for opinions to be formed, cost is intrinsically linked to the perceived value of that investment. We all might have an idea what a low or high cost looks like, but the perceived value and return from that investment is what ultimately helps us make an informed decision.

The current picture doesn’t appear particularly favourable for UK universities. The ‘Value for money: the student perspective’ research in 2018, commissioned by the Office of Students and led by a consortium of Students’ Unions, identified some worrying statistics for the sector.

  • Only 38% of students think that their tuition fee for their course represents good value for money
  • 54% of students consider their investment in higher education as being good value for money
  • Only 27% of recent graduates think they will repay their tuition fees and maintenance loans due to the high level of debt incurred and low earnings on graduation

Interestingly, further studies found that perceived value for money differs wildly between institutions and courses studied.

To improve value for money perceptions and outcomes, institutions must understand what value for money consists of, how it is viewed by students, how it can be measured and how it can be improved.

The Which? ‘Degree of value’ research identified three key areas from which overall value can be derived:

  • Social and personal
  • Academic
  • Labour market – employability and earnings

Institutions need to identify, understand and measure individual elements of these three areas, across the student experience, to put strategies in place to help improve them, and ultimately help the student get as much value as possible from their time at university.

In the current financial, political and economic landscape, the university may be limited in what they can actually do to reduce the amount of debt a student leaves with, but they can greater control value for money perceptions, before, during and after university.

Understanding and measuring elements of the student experience which impact on value for money perceptions is complex given the high volume of experiences and touch-points students encounter, but integral elements can include the following:

  • Quality of the academic offer
  • Amount of contact with staff
  • Support to become job-ready and employment outcomes
  • Social & engagement opportunities
  • Transferable skills and employment outcomes

Each of these areas are complex in themselves, for example, help to develop a student’s employability skills would include training and tasks in areas such as self-management, problem solving, organisation skills, communication and teamwork. The Which? study found over 20% of students were dissatisfied or highly dissatisfied with the provision their university made in these areas.

For universities to understand, measure and improve in these areas, robust and holistic insight and engagement programmes need to be established, not just with current students, but with potential students and post-graduates after they have left too.

Of course, universities carry out many research programmes and surveys to obtain feedback and insights, in fact it could be argued too many surveys are created and pushed at students, creating respondent fatigue and resulting in falling response rates.

However, too many surveys are concerned with here and now event driven satisfaction for particular touch-points or interactions. Whist undoubtably important and help to drive improvements in processes, systems and behaviours which can improve the student experience in that area, often they fail to connect and fail to identify actions and priorities for improvement which ultimately drive perceptions around and create value.

With student debt spiralling and recent independent research suggesting students do not believe they get value for money from this significant investment, perhaps its time for insight and engagement programmes to focus more on attributes which ultimately create value, and use these insights to put in place strategies to really add value, and also use this information to aid marketing and positioning to help attract new students.   

It may not be long before there is a new university league table, with students and recent leavers scoring their institution on value for money. And that would be something of great interest to potential students and parents.

For further information or to discuss our experience of research aligned to student experience please contact Darren or the team