Media coverage of a recent student survey suggested higher education was poor value for money. But, asks Professor David Midgley, what does ‘value for money’ actually mean to students?

The announcement of the 2018 Student Academic Experience Survey (SAES) by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) on 7 June was pretty up-beat (“In a marked reversal of a five-year downward trend,” it began, “students in the United Kingdom are reporting statistically significant improvements in perceptions of value for money from their higher education experience.”

Media coverage, in contrast, tended to recycle the headlines of previous years, emphasising that it was still “only a third of students” in England who saw their courses as good value. And while acknowledging the “modest increase in the number of students who think they are getting good value for money from their courses”, the minister for universities, speaking at the annual conference of HEPI (again on 7 June), chose to stress that “nearly a third” still thought they were getting a bad deal.

There are precedents for the tendentious use of evidence from the academic experience surveys. Most notably, the 2016 White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy drew on the SAES when claiming that a third of undergraduates at universities in England thought their course represented very poor or poor value for money. What it did not acknowledge, however, was the observation in that part of the 2014 report (p. 9) that the expression of students’ concern in this area was “not unexpected given that the shift from government funding to student (loans) funding has not meant a commensurate increase in resource for learning and teaching for institutions”.

The White Paper (p. 8) even claimed on the basis of the 2015 survey that “over 60% of students” found some elements of their course worse than expected – a figure arrived at by combining the 12% who said the reality of their experience had been worse than expected with the 49% who said, understandably enough, that some parts had been worse and some had been better. So it is particularly interesting to see what this year’s survey actually shows us, and what the nature of that “bad deal” is that some students think they are getting.

The period between 2012 and 2017 had seen a steady decline in the proportion of respondents indicating that they considered their course represented ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value, from 53% to 35%. Over the same period, the number indicating ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ value had steadily risen from 18% to 34%. This year the uptick in positive responses, from 35% to 38% for the UK as a whole, is matched by a downturn in negative responses, from 34% to 32%. These overall figures are, however, bolstered by markedly stronger positive responses in Scotland (60%), in Wales (48%), and among students from the EU (47%). In England, both the positive and the negative figures lie at 35% – so about a third.

Perceptions of value are related to cost

Additionally, however, this year’s survey contained a number of new questions designed to elicit a more precise indication of how students view their situation in higher education. One of these, which the minister omitted to mention, asked students to appraise their choice of course. The answers indicated that 65% were happy with the choice of both course and institution that they had made. Only 5% said they would not go into higher education if they were making the same decision again, and the executive summary of the survey report comments (p. 7): “Even students who were not entirely happy would be overwhelmingly likely to go into higher education if given the chance again, which is positive given the level of financial challenge that students take on.”

Another, more revealing, new question this year asked students to identify from a randomised list of factors what they predominantly have in mind when thinking about good or poor value. The reasons chosen by respondents showed quite a clear distinction between the factors that dominate in perceptions of good value and those that dominate in perceptions of poor value. Good value was strongly associated with notions of quality: from the list offered, 68% chose teaching quality, 67% course content, 62% course facilities, and 51% quality of campus, while career prospects were selected by 53%.

Perceptions of poor value, on the other hand, were predominantly associated with considerations of cost. In this connection, 62% selected tuition fees, and 37% cost of living, while the proportion that selected teaching quality was 45%, course content 37%, and contact hours 44%. As the report states (p. 15), the problem for universities that these findings highlight is that “a perception of good value for money can be difficult to achieve given the prevailing level of fees”.

In short, the factors that make for a significantly lower perception of value among students from England appear to be strongly related to the funding regime that those students are experiencing. This is clearly evidence that the government would be well advised to take into account in the context of their forthcoming review of post-18 education and funding. If, on the other hand, they continue to belabour universities for not providing “value for money”, they can now be firmly reminded that part of the reason for that perception lies with their own funding policy.