HE heads caution against sector focus on short-term gains

Emphasis on student earning outcomes risks overlooking the bigger picture, say academics

October 25, 2021
Source: iStock

Policymakers risk undermining universities’ aims of tackling societal challenges if they concentrate on short-term gains such as earnings outcomes and productivity of graduates, higher education leaders have said.

Despite continued calls for more meaningful ways of evaluating the university sector, institutional performance continues to be gauged by metrics that value immediate return on investment, undercutting big-picture aims, participants in the Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Summit heard today.

The discussion comes as the UK government mulls plans to cap the number of students in creative arts and other degrees with lower salary returns – provoking the ire of academics who want public funding to support a diversity of fields, which they maintain are valuable.

“There’s a real tension…in what are short- and long-term goals” for education, said Lorraine Dearden, a professor of economics and social statistics at UCL, who argued that critical research does not necessarily produce the visible economic results favoured by politicians.

She said methods for predicting “what is going to be a worthwhile investment now for productivity down the line” are imprecise at best and can even be counterproductive.

“It’s not just about focusing on which subjects have the best private returns and the best taxpayer returns,” Professor Dearden said. “An important point to realise is the incentives for universities and governments are different.”

Panel speakers noted that the UK system, in which student fees are used to subsidise teaching and research, results in diverging goals between universities eager to provide stimulating subject matter and a government keen on students repaying their loans. Currently, graduates pay back into the system once they have sufficient earning power, something that ultimately incentivises courses that prioritise earnings over subject matter, they said.

But a black-and-white system that classifies some subjects – such as mathematics or engineering – as “useful” fails to capture nuance, said Sir Anton Muscatelli, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow.

“I don’t think it’s helpful because, in reality, what you need is a variety of skills, which are meta-skills and actually aren’t subject-specific,” he said.

Instead, Sir Anton suggested, “if we’re serious, especially in post-Brexit UK”, about thinking about growth, public investment in education must be thought of in the same vein as infrastructure development.

“Whether you’re doing an arts degree or a science degree, you need to get a number of competencies and skills, which are around problem-solving, critical thinking, et cetera,” he said.

But universities will also need to do more heavy lifting to sell their offerings more convincingly to the government in a way that does not lean on immediate gains, said Anna Vignoles, director of the Leverhulme Trust.

“We have to tell a better story,” she said. “When we’re telling a story about what universities do, we…need to engage with the idea that you have to measure it − but also have to suggest that it’s an investment [that] yields the return down the line.

“Otherwise, what is the argument about spending in HE versus spending on bits of society that are far more deprived and underfunded?”


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Reader's comments (3)

Many will agree that post degree earnings levels are a poor and very blunt measure of how useful a degree is to society. Individuals should be able to study whatever they choose; but not at the expense of other taxpayers. It is one method the govt is trying to use as an 'objective measure' to weed out 'degree' courses being taught to students who do not have degree level ability. Such courses are a waste of taxpayer funds and also a waste of 3 years of someone's life who would be more suitable for skills based training (TVET) in one of the many well paid occupations the UK now has a chronic shortage of.
I found it strange that this article contained this statement "the UK system, in which student fees are used to subsidise teaching [& research]" I understand the position often made regarding research funding, but isn't this a nonsensical statement in relation to teaching? where except for the few areas of very high cost subjects, all income for teaching comes from the fees that are invoiced by institutions? Unless you were referring to the element of fee loans from the Government which are / are not paid back from each cohort - meaning the full 'cost' of teaching to government is 'subsidised' by the loans that some learners repay? But doesn't subsidy relate to the market & consumer, rather than the regulator/ controller? (And this is a forecast position based on a considerable future period?)
Hi John Baker. It does sound off but I think the point maybe was that some degrees are far more expensive to run than others (particularly if there is a large laboratory based component) but the fees are the same, thus there is cross-subsidy from one subject area to another.


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