The concept of ‘value’ is an important one within the higher education (HE) sector, and one that can defy clear definition – ‘value’ is often in the eye of the beholder. This past week ‘value’ has been particularly pertinent to HE institutions, specifically, whether university education offers value. But what do we mean by value, and for whom?

The HEPI and PwC Valuing Higher Education conference last week dealt with value for money; not only for students directly engaging in HE (and accruing debt in the process), but for taxpayers contributing to university funding. As university fees tripled over the last decade, unsurprisingly, all interested parties would like to know where their cash is being spent. This event, which featured Rachel Hewitt (HEPI), Matt Davey (OfS) and Jim Dickinson (Wonkhe) amongst others, highlighted the importance of transparency in university spending to current and prospective students. Both the OfS’ Value for Money Strategy and UUK’s guide to presenting financial information to students followed swiftly on the heels of the conference.

Value for money inherently goes beyond the quantifiable financial exchange during a course of study.

Of course, value for money is not just about the initial financial purchase of an education outcome. When Unite Students asked about motivations for attending university, only 52% of learners answered, “to gain a higher level of education”. Instead, experiential outcomes such as new friendships, gaining independence and moving away from home were all deemed to be of importance. However when comparing the value of outputs vs outcomes, Jim Dickinson notes that outcomes, such as personal development and employability, are perceived as valuable only once students are happy with the immediate outputs. So, if a student feels their fees are being spent on sub-par services or poor support systems, they will not only be disappointed in the facilities and teaching, but this disappointment will feed into the total appraisal of their degree after graduation. Value for money inherently goes beyond the quantifiable financial exchange during a course of study. But this is not an excuse to underestimate the lasting effects of dodgy student halls and oversubscribed libraries.

As students evaluate the profit and loss sheet of their higher educational careers, inevitably the ‘value’ of attending university at all must be further interrogated. Of the c.14,000 respondents to the HEPI 2019 Student Academic Experience Survey, 4% admitted they would have done an apprenticeship instead of a degree, if they had known what their university experience would be. 3 years spent developing skills in the job market as opposed to the classroom provides a different value to a career and a positive effect on potential earnings. While 4% might seem like a low figure, with current policy directed at the Level 4 and 5 skills gap and the introduction of T-Levels, there is a strong future in the sector embracing this shift towards alternative routes into a career and recognising that university does not provide the same, if any value, to all students.

HE can offer many potential outcomes for students, but it must be acknowledged that the future of this field is a changeable one. With Brexit, the Industrial Strategy and reports such as Augar stirring the waters, the course of HE and how to determine its ‘value’ could yet be turned on its head again. But as long as fees remain controversial to the general population, and the sector continues to operate in the grey space between a business market and a force for social good, the question of value for money will continue to be relevant.