University values are missing from student ‘value for money’ debate

Encouraging students to embody their institution’s distinctive values will allow it to present a more rounded view of the true worth of higher education, says Claire Taylor

October 29, 2022
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This autumn marks the 10th anniversary of tuition fees rising to £9,000 a year in most parts of the UK but the debate about whether this represents “value for money” seems more urgent than ever.

Although their value in 2012 prices is approaching £6,000, tuition fees still loom large in the national consciousness – and on student loan arrears sheets – prompting universities to make the case whenever they can about why higher education provides good value for students.

For the economists and politicians who have championed growing student enrolments, the clear link between achieving a university degree and future earning potential is often the strongest proof that students receive value for money. Others will claim that higher education’s main value lies in the intellectual gain or personal growth enjoyed by individuals, or in the broader social and economic benefits from having a highly educated workforce required for a vibrant and innovative economy.

But could a wider interpretation of “value” help us move beyond both of these arguments? In this sense, I suggest two words – “valued” and “values” – are important here.

Take the idea of “being valued”. I recently spoke to newly enrolled students at my university and wanted to communicate that they had made a great decision choosing to study with us. I encouraged them to work hard and engage with their studies but also everything else on offer – clubs, societies and other opportunities to contribute to our university community beyond their studies. In return, I promised that during their time with us they would be valued – appreciated and supported to succeed and thrive. Surely, a sense of being valued should be a key element of the value that can be gained from studying within a university community?

Crucially, I was able to deliver this message confidently because, as an academic and educator, values have informed my work, and my organisation also has clearly defined values that we try to embed in all that we do. My university’s values are to be accessible, supportive, innovative and ambitious and these apply to our interactions with students, staff, visitors and partners. We don’t get it right every time, but we genuinely try to ensure that our values are directly linked to the value that we offer to all who interact with us – whether students, staff or those in our nearby community. In other words, there is the potential to create a virtuous circle whereby clearly defined values reinforce a sense of feeling valued, which, in turn, leads to tangible value for students.

If value, being valued and values are so closely linked, it is worth asking what your organisation’s values are. Are they writ large for all to see, influencing behaviour and shaping organisational culture? Or are they rather apologetically hidden in the depths of a dusty mission statement somewhere? Even more importantly, do these values support your organisation’s value proposition in terms of articulating the benefits of belonging to your organisation rather than another? They should help you both justify the cost incurred by students but also articulate the likely benefits that prospective undergraduates will enjoy – namely entering a place of learning and research informed by distinctive values that are understood by employees and partners.

As public perception of the value of a university education continues to ebb and flow depending on political whim and media focus, perhaps it’s time for the higher education sector to present a more rounded picture of just what “value” means.

Of course, value is what our students, staff and partners say it is, and perception of value will vary according to individual and context. Therefore, each perception should be acknowledged and valued as worthy in its own right, underpinned by a strong values base.

The monetary value of a degree related to its link to future earnings and graduate success cannot be ignored, even if the unfortunate connotation is that degrees that do not appear to lead to lucrative jobs are immediately dismissed as “low value”.

But if we strive to be truly values-led in all we do and if we ensure that everyone who comes into contact with us feels valued, we can start to recast the narrative around the true value of a higher education.

Claire Taylor is deputy vice-chancellor at Wrexham Glyndwr University.

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Reader's comments (3)

This is an excellent article. I would also reflect that feeling valued encourages students to ensure that they in turn value others, which can be another hugely positive outcome of education.
A great article that refocuses the concept of 'value' beyond narrow metrics and recognises that value will mean different things to different people, with an underpinning foundation of values being vital. The ebb and flow of political and media narratives is also mentioned. As a sector, if we can agree a longer term vision of the value of higher education then this will outlast any particular political direction.
Claire’s article clearly identifies why it’s important that University students are presented with opportunities to reflect upon, understand, and articulate their own values. This gives people the confidence to align themselves with institutions and organisations whose values align with their own. With many graduate recruiters adopting a values-based selection process, the approach adopted here supports future generations to make meaningful career decisions, in order to secure appropriate and fulfilling employment.

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