Friday 20 November 2020 5:30 am

Is going to university actually worth it — and who should decide?

Aveek Bhattacharya is chief economist at the Social Market Foundation

What are universities for

It’s the sort of navel-gazing question that academics love to pose, and the sort of deep philosophical terrain that pragmatic policy people fear getting sucked too far into. 

But with the government and regulators looking at new ways to measure and compare the quality of different degrees, it is a conversation that can’t be put off any longer. 

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In recent weeks, both the Department for Education and the Office for Students have indicated that higher education providers should be judged more on the basis of graduate outcomes: how much their students go on to earn and whether they get professional jobs. Critics worry that this reflects an unduly narrow view of the value of a degree, treating it just as a route to a better career. 

In response, Universities UK, a sector body, is in the process of developing a more holistic set of metrics, intended to reflect the multiplicity of benefits to further study. Their “charter” could suggest assessing courses on their contribution to public services, regional development, and life satisfaction. 

That approach could get messy quite quickly though, trying to list and measure all the things that people might want universities to do, or making controversial judgements about what to leave out. 

An alternative approach is to say that universities exist to do whatever their users — students — want them to do. Since they are the ones studying for the degree, we should assess universities on how satisfied their students are. 

Indeed, student satisfaction is a central element of existing performance measures. However, sceptics argue that students are not always well-placed to understand how well they are being taught: high satisfaction might reflect low expectations, having an “easy ride”, or being dazzled by flashy gimmicks. 

And students aren’t the only ones with something at stake — parents, businesses and the government all have an interest in higher education being effective, too. 

What surely everybody can agree on is that students go to university to learn. So it might seem obvious to assess universities on how well they do so, just as we evaluate schools on exam results. Unlike schools, though, university assessments vary widely from course to course, reflecting very different curricula. Standardising assessments could make comparisons easier, but would be practically very difficult. Stronger external benchmarking could help, but only if it is robustly enforced. 

In any case, it could be argued that universities can only provide the opportunity to learn: how far students make use of that opportunity is down to them. That suggests we should be judging universities on the quality of their teaching. But widespread Ofsted-style inspections would likely be resented by the sector and (perhaps more importantly) very expensive. 

Designing a better way to evaluate higher education requires an answer to fundamental questions about the purpose of universities, but also a way to balance cost and practicality against our need to understand how institutions are performing. It will be a tricky task indeed. And it starts by having a more honest conversation about what — and who — these esteemed centres of higher learning are fundamentally for.

Elusive quality: how should we evaluate higher education? was published this week by the Social Market Foundation and can be read here.

Main image credit: Getty

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