Universities UK president Prof Julia Buckingham has delivered a passionate defence of higher education in a speech which attacked government measurements of the sector based on graduate incomes.
The Conservative Party’s 2019 election manifesto pledged to clamp down on low-quality university courses, but Prof Buckingham said the debate around value “has been framed very narrowly by policy makers, politicians and commentators. It has often lacked nuance, failing to look beyond salary outcomes”.
We need to look beyond an individual’s P60 and think about the total package
– Prof Buckingham
She called upon other vice-chancellors to “make the case to government that we need to look beyond an individual’s P60 and think about the total package which is enriching their life and that of the people and community around them.”
Challenging what she described as the narrative of the ‘great university con’, Prof Buckingham said higher education delivered value to students and society. The younger generation look to different measures of success, she said, “with wellbeing, personal development, diversity and civic responsibilities highly prized”.
Limitations of measuring student incomes
Drawing upon results of a 2019 Savanta ComRes poll commissioned by Universities UK (UUK), its president said: “policy makers and politicians have got it wrong when it comes to understanding what motivates today’s students and graduates.”
According to the survey, only a third of students and recent graduates surveyed said they decided to go to university to get a higher salary than they otherwise would have had, with 84% agreeing that future salary was not the only factor they considered when applying.
The government’s preferred measurement, longitudinal education outcomes (LEO) data, was derided by the UUK president, who said it had “some serious limitations”.
LEO data does not account for whether a graduate is in full or part-time work and does not account for the variation in regional job markets and local economies, Prof Buckingham said.
The UUK president, who is also vice-chancellor of Brunel University, illustrated her argument by pointing out the difference between her institution and UCL. “While my own university is a London institution, there are variations within the so-called London market – Uxbridge is different from Bloomsbury,” she said.
While my own university is a London institution, there are variations within the so-called London market – Uxbridge is different from Bloomsbury
– Prof Buckingham
LEO data is also highly influenced by external economic activity, such as the recession, and cannot predict the future potential for graduate wage growth, she complained.
Graduate salaries are unlikely to have “peaked” five years after graduating, she continued, which means students who are self-employed, or entrepreneurs may appear to have failed to replicate the success of their peers. Teachers and nurses are also likely to have lower earnings, which may skew an institutions’ figures, Prof Buckingham continued.
Prof Buckingham said the poll showed that students value elements of the university experience which may be harder to quantify, such as developing time management and social skills, accessing academic tutors and libraries, gaining confidence and independence, making friends and learning about wider social issues and debates. The issue around course value for money has intensified since the previous coalition government voted to triple student tuition fees to £9,000.
‘What value to the taxpayer is there from subsidising these courses?’
The UUK figurehead said demonstrating value for taxpayer money should be a priority for the sector.
“In the case of assessing value to the taxpayer, we must measure broader impacts on the economy and society. We know we have a strong story to tell – but we must back this up with the evidence and go as far as we can in terms of quantifying these elements of value, however challenging that may be.
“We must also address, head-on, the issue of where some university courses lead to earnings below that of non-graduates – what value to the taxpayer is there from subsidising these courses?”
Prof Buckingham said students who earn less may add value to the UK in other ways, such as working for charities, or becoming inventors and artists.
The UUK premier called for a new framework to measure these forms of graduate contribution, but added: “Developing such a framework would be a significant step in the right direction. But if we are going to be successful in changing perceptions, there are additional things we should pay close attention to otherwise we may risk winning the battle but losing the war when it comes to increasing understanding the value of higher education.
“One such area is what we collectively do to inform students what their fees are being spent on.”
We don’t want to be in an Orwellian scenario where Longitudinal Education Outcomes data tells government how to think
– Chris Skidmore
A Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) report from 2018 revealed that three-quarters of students want more information on where their fees go. It recommended publishing cash figures on where fees go that relate to the actual fees paid.
“A lack of easily accessible information on university spending could lead to ongoing misperceptions that fees are solely spent on direct costs of teaching which in turn can influence student perceptions of value for money,” Prof Buckingham commented.
In June last year, universities minister Chris Skidmore told the Festival of Higher Education at the University of Buckingham, that while “I support the production of data to be available to make policy decisions for the future [but] we don’t want to be in an Orwellian scenario where Longitudinal Education Outcomes data tells government how to think and governments how to make policy”.
Six months earlier, in a speech at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Mr Skidmore said: “I realise the LEO data could be developed further. So I am keen to engage with the sector to explore how to make the most of this data going forwards. For one, I want to look at ways of making this data more readily available to the academic research community to allow for more in-depth analysis.”
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