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‘Value for Money’ in university education

There is concern among students, their parents and guardians, politicians and the media that university students should get ‘value for money’ from their degree.

I can’t disagree with this. As a parent myself, I am concerned that my children should not waste my money or theirs on anything – whether that is a university degree, a new car or a trip abroad.

But what constitutes ‘value for money’ is often not clear when it comes to an educational or learning experience. Part of the confusion stems from whether ‘value for money’ means: a) ‘getting value for what you are paying for while at university’; b)  ‘getting something out of your university degree which benefits you after graduation’. Those two sorts of  value may not be the same at all. The first is value ‘pay-as-you-go’; the second is value as investment.

Let’s look at the pay-as-you-go value first. Here, what we would usually be looking for is paying for something that gives what you want at the time. Analogies might be a helicopter pleasure ride or a trip to a concert. You want your money to give you an experience which is enjoyable and enriching. But the buck stops there, as it were. You don’t then expect that the experience will lead to still further value, further enrichment and fulfilment at a later point. We can say that you are paying in order to get something of intrinsic value. We will turn to this version of ‘value for money in education’ below.

The second sort of value for money in education sees the payment as an investment. Here the emphasis on is what you can get out of your degree for future benefit. Investment typically requires you to forego some benefit now for increased benefit in the future. The education you obtain in this way is instrumental. It allows you to progress to something else (often the thing in mind is a job with a higher salary than might have been obtained without the education), but there is an assumption, only weakly hidden, that the educational experience you are paying for is not worth paying for (much) in itself – that it has little intrinsic value. Indeed, you might have to sacrifice something (having a better time by hanging out more, earing money by working) to obtain the education you need for your future.

As concerns about job prospects rise, the latter view is starting to dominate. But I think this view must be resisted, even if it is taken seriously and acknowledged.

There are at least two reasons to resist it. Firstly, a great university experience, such as a student can have if they really love what they study and they study at a university that allows them to explore and develop their intellectual interests, is something of the greatest intrinsic value. No helicopter ride, no trip to a concert will ever come close to the life-changing and truly fulfilling experience that an undergraduate degree can be. A good undergraduate experience is among the things of greatest intrinsic value you can encounter in a life. Secondly, unlike the helicopter ride or the concert, the university experience is deeply formative. In this sense it can never be strictly pay-as-you-go. Whereas most things of this pay-as-you-go category fade relatively quickly, our university experience often shapes our whole lives. Such experience allows us to start to define ourselves, our values, our beliefs and our delights. And these things stay with you throughout your life.

So, while you think you may only be getting value pay-as-you-go, in fact you are building up a kind of bank – let us call it an emotional and experiential bank – from which you can draw throughout your life. The better the bank you build, the better experiences you have to build on and memories you have to look back on. A good university experience thus has intrinsic and instrumental value – only the instrumental value may not be financial. It is hard to put a value on this. This bank of experiences can be, simply, the most important factor and resource in your life – how do you price that?

The counter argument says: ‘Yeah, this is all very nice, but I have to pay the bills – you can’t do that by just doing what you like at university and studying useless courses’. But of course this is far too simplistic.  Pay-as-you-go value and investment value are not mutually exclusive in the case of university education; it is because they can get so entangled that we get confused.

The fact is that graduates from the best universities, at least in the UK, have very similar incomes and job prospects right across the range of academic study. There is much data about this, but the picture remains confused and so the arguments go on. Typically it is claimed that Science, Engineering and Maths graduates earn more than, say, History, French and Media Studies graduates, but the data is too sketchy and incomplete to be anywhere near conclusive. Indeed, here is some data which at least flatly contradicts the view that science degrees are more likely to lead to employment, with History and Philosophy graduates earning more the Computer Science or Engineering graduates. Corroborating this, recently the Provost of UCL, Malcolm Grant, remarked that he was surprised on attending a meeting of successful entrepreneurs to learn that the majority appeared to have studied Philosophy as undergraduates. Philosophy is often much derided by those with instrumental views of university education, but clearly the employment prospects do not fit the stereotypes.

Even if you are a diehard instrumentalist you will concede that there is, of course, much more to life than money – particularly at the upper end of the salary scales, where most graduates from good universities will find themselves. There is job fulfilment, happiness, even power. In the UK, at least, MPs are paid a lot less than those in many other jobs. Yet it is a rewarding job and offers people power they may not otherwise have. Many MPs do not study Science, Engineering or Maths as undergraduates. If you doubt me about the importance of lots of money for a good life, there has been research recently – widely cited – which shows that around at a salary of around 50K in the UK, people are happy enough: adding more salary after this makes little difference to your well-being.

But let’s take this on in a little more detail, looking at two examples of undergraduate study. Both undergraduate courses  – one in science and one in humanities –  will cost £50,000 in fees and expenses after three years. Just for the sake of this example, let’s say that the science undergraduate is doing her course for instrumental reasons – she doesn’t have much interest in what she is doing, but she is able to get her head down and do OK; and the humanities undergraduate is doing his course because he loves it and is interested in it: intrinsic reasons.

Let’s say, further, that after graduation the humanities graduate obtains a job ‘only’ giving him an eventual salary – after, say, 15 years – of £45,000 per year and the science graduate obtains a job giving her a salary of, say £55,000 after 15 years. Can you really say the humanities student has lost out, that he has not had value for money from his degree?

We can argue the humanities graduate had a fantastic time at university. He discovered literature more beautiful than anything he had imagined and which he still reads to this day; because he was happy in his studies he flourished, met like-minded people, contributed to many clubs and societies and fell in love with someone who shared his interests. The sciences graduate hung in there, did OK, but never really felt she belonged and, when she looks back, always feels she somehow missed out on those most formative years because she was not truly engaged in what she was doing. Who has the best deal here? Who gets the value for money? Does the science graduate win out because in her 30s she drives a better model car and can go to good restaurants a bit more often? This seems a strange way to value things.

You may argue that this is a caricature, but the data seems to show that once you go to a top university, there are no obvious significant differences in life chances and final outcomes depending on what your undergraduate studies are.

If all of this fails to convince you, at least think about two things: 1) if you want to get seriously rich – be one of the ‘outliers’ – and that is your priority, you have at least as good a chance of doing so by not going to university at all (ask Branson, Paphitis, Bannatyne, Devey etc); 2) who said you were a statistic anyway? No matter what the statistics tell you and even if they showed that there are rock solid statistical difference in salaries, happiness, fulfilment between graduate in different subjects (and of course there are not, but let’s imagine that there were), who says you cannot be one of the students to buck the trend? Who says you cannot study what you truly like at university and have the life you always wanted afterwards? If I were approaching university now, that is what I would be thinking.

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