It was reported on the BBC this morning that fewer than two in five students think they are getting value for money from their courses. This is based on a survey of 14000 students. The students want more teaching time. They want more contact with the teachers in return for their £9250 a year.
What is going wrong? One response was quite alarmingly complacent. The spokesman said that things were getting “better” as 38% of students were satisfied with the value for money vs 35% last year. This is a statement that seems to miss the point about the 62% who are dissatisfied.
This reminded me of my son’s recent experience at York University and his reaction to what he was offered and how the institution related to him. He liked his teachers, he wanted more input from them. He received about 5 hours a week input. But he felt the university was more preoccupied with new buildings and a massive plan to expand the capacity of the university. Today the Universities Minister Sam Gyimah, warned universities about generating courses just to put bums on seats
My son also noticed the very high salaries paid to the top management who remained invisible to students and he felt did not contribute much. (The vice chancellor received £293,000 last year, so it needs 32 students fees cover this alone).
So what is wrong? Why are so many students dissatisfied or frustrated? I wonder if the government and the new professional management has created a whole new breed of value extractors who have lost sight of the purpose of the universities. The focus seems to have shifted from quality research and education to expanding the numbers and generating income to fund the expansion.
I believe the future value of our universities is the research they do and education they provide to students. Both of these are a public good that benefits the whole of society. This is their purpose. The fact the students report dissatisfaction with the education should be a major cause for alarm. The students have pointed to one thing that would raise quality and that is more contact time.
My daughter had a different experience at Cambridge. The students at Oxford and Cambridge are more satisfied as they get double and treble the contact time offered by other universities. This is largely funded by Alumnae grants and donations. But again their higher satisfaction indicates that contact time matters.
My definition of value is based on what value the universities add by what they do, the research and education. This is very different from the value definition provided by ministers and the universities. This is just about the price that students can charge for themselves when they leave. The value is about the higher earnings that the students will enjoy in later life. Interestingly, the Institute for Fiscal studies is going to produce a report on how different courses and universities deliver on this.
This distinction is important. A value-adding brand or organisation starts by focusing on its purpose which should be based on what it can do to help its customers (in this case teach them well). A value extracting approach just looks at the numbers and says what is the least I need to put in to get the highest price and quickest return.
The problem for the value extractor is that the customers tend to rumble what they are up to and look elsewhere. There were 4% fewer applicants for university places in 2017. In contrast, a value adder attracts more customers and keeps the ones they have. They create long-term value.
I hope our universities are paying attention, we need them to work for our country.