Do UK universities provide value for money?

This is the question that Sir Keith Burnett the president and vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield has recently discussed in his Times Higher article Do UK universities provide value for money?

The question is driven by impact of increases in student fees, the debates about vice chancellor pay and the method of funding of higher education in general.  The explicit defense of university value in the face of challenge and criticism is evidently new territory for many senior university management teams.

Trying understand, deliver and communicate value is not new territory for anybody who has worked in the commercial sector. Nor is it  new territory for a significant number of business and management academics who could knowledgeably advise their university management teams on the ambiguous nature of value.

 ‘Value may be one of the most overused and misused terms in marketing and pricing’  Leszinski and Marn (1997:99)

The risky move in this area is to also assume that university marketing departments should have responsibility for creating the university value proposition. Why risky? well because Marketing is typically cast as the awareness and communication role alone. If this is the case it is prone to ‘facelift marketing’ rather than anything to do with value creation and delivery essence of the offer. This is the world of differentiated promises that can be disconnected from the service reality. 

Just as an example of the extent of research into this deceptively simple and perennially contentious notion here are some relevant articles:

Leszinski, R. and Marn, M.V. (1997) Setting value, not price. The McKinsey Quarterly, No. 1, pp. 99-115.

Woodruff R.B. (1997) Customer value: The next source for competitive advantage: Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science. Volume 25, Issue 2, pp 139-153

Payne A., Holt S. (2001) Diagnosing Customer Value: Integrating the Value Process and Relationship Marketing.  British Journal of Management. Vol 12 159-182.

Khalifa A.S. (2004) Customer value: a review of recent literature and an integrative configuration. Management Decision Vol. 42 No. 5, 2004 pp. 645-666

Gallarza M.G. Gil-Saura I. Holbrook, M.B. (2014) The value of value: Further excursions on the meaning and role of customer value. Journal of Consumer 10: 179–191

Understanding value is vital for all that follows. If you want to achieve competitive advantage you need to understand value, if you want happy customers you need to understand value, if you want a successful business you need to understand value.

Value is a multifaceted moving target. Sir Keith points out that value is more than just the price or as Michael Porter claimed ‘the price someone is willing to pay’. I totally concur with Sir Keith and I believe that there is one very important thing about understanding value that gets lost in the wash and there is a good explanation for this which is…

The majority of business management courses in business schools around the world are built on the assumption of management as a science (This is the hidden agenda of the lauded MBA for example) and not just any old science but a particular form of objective, value free, go by facts you can see and measure sort of science that goes by the name of Positivism

Now this sort of science is great for things like physics and chemistry and the natural sciences and in the early days management researchers (scientists) in business schools tried really hard to get academic ‘street cred’ by copying the assumptions and methods of positivism and only accepting empirical (based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience) evidence.

But to understand social things like people and their beliefs can you really understand something by just looking at the surface? or do you look at what is going on beneath for your assessment of value? There is more to value than meets the eyeball to paraphrase Hanson in Hanson, N. R. “From Patterns of Discovery,” in Perception, R. Schwartz, ed. pp. 292- 305, 1988.

So the assumptions you hold (if you are even aware of them) have a huge influence on what you believe the issues are and what actions should be taken to address them. Often we are lead to believe that there are only two games in town.

a) The hard science positivist/empiricist way mentioned above and

b) the so called fluffy ‘its all relative/anything goes’ Post Modernist way of understanding the world in which language and discourse create (construct) social reality.

There is a third game though!

In academic parlance this is the difference between:

Naive Empiricsm  

Critical Realism

Much of today’s management education is based on assumptions of the former rather that the latter and is the thrust of the ‘satisfaction’ agenda and every day assumptions about what the reality of something is. This means that most university managers who  clutch their MBA’s and such like operate from a very particular (often naive) set of assumptions about reality and value. This distills out into two core approaches:

  1. Value as simply something that is immediately observed and experienced
  2. Value as something that can profoundly generate a complex difference in the right conditions

Sir Keith remarks that:

“So when a parent asks, “How many contact hours does my kid get at university?” or “How much money will they earn afterwards?”, they are really making sure that they are not being ripped off. They are trying to get at the value for money from their child’s point of view. And given that they and their children are now bearing the costs directly, who can blame them?”

I think this is value/reality assumption set 1 thinking.

When he observes:

“If a parent wants “better value for money” in the sense that they long for their child to be taught by truly great thinkers then they need to think of education in its fullest sense. Perhaps they should be concerned at the erosion of resource for the kind of work which won their child’s university and department international respect.

What academics do when they are not teaching matters for our students because their futures will depend on our reputation many years ahead.”

I think this is value/reality set 2 thinking.

Set two is about a deeper, subtler and longer term idea of value. It is also not just about the money in isolation.

A really profound issue at the heart of this debate concerns the value and purpose of higher education overall. Talk to most academics, look at their degree design documents and sitting there bold and proud is the aim that students by the end of their degree will move towards being independent self directed learners. This is a highly valuable competence and not the outcome of a ‘teaching’ approach that says just fill my head with ‘knowledge stuff’. It is also the basis of a rebuttle of the ‘so how many contact hours will by son/daughter’ get? Surely the issue is will my son/daughter be able to seek guidance when appropriate not some facile metric of hours in front of a tutor?

So what does the future hold? What sort of value do universities provide? What sort of value will they provide? It will be interesting to see what happens if the obsession with surface interpretations of value dominate because students, employers and the country will be the losers. And all because some managerialist university manager thinks they know what they are talking about when it comes to value because they’ve done a management masters.


A critical realist take on value might just stop university value being lost











Do management gurus really improve your business? 

There is probably nothing less connected to everyday business management problem solving than early medieval philosophy. 

Recently I stumbled across a classic of this genre called The Consolation of Philosophy written by a chap called Boethius. It is a collection of his thoughts on life the universe and everything as he awaits execution after being wrongly found guilty of a crime. 

Just the sort of light reading you need after a hard day at the office you might think! 

In his prison cell he is visited by the goddess of philosophy who helps him make sense of his predicament and gives him peace of mind.

It was something in the first couple of pages that caught my and got me thinking about the impact and value of whole management education and consulting industry. 

Boethius is initially visited by the Muses – who inspire him to write down his initial thoughts. Then the goddess of philosophy and wisdom turns up (conventionally called Sophia – hence philosophy – love of wisdom) who sends the muses packing:

“Who,’ said she, ‘has allowed yon play-acting wantons to approach this sick man—these who, so far from giving medicine to heal his malady, even feed it with sweet poison?”

Excerpt From: Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius. “The Consolation of Philosophy.” iBooks. 

Check out this book on the iBooks Store: Consolation of Philosophy

I wondered after reading this if management gurus of all types from university researchers and educators through to management consultants are as much to business as the Muses were to Boethuis. Do they actually provide deep insight and wisdom or do they merely peddle tool kits that simply structure the analysis of issues, the ranking of options and the selection of the silver bullet. 

(Ha! My predictive text suggested mullet – silver mullet eh? well they say the fish rots from the head cf Bob Garrat) 

So there we have it! From  Fish bone diagrams (cf Ishikawa) to Porters Five Forces, Prestcom to strategy canvas. From Belbin to Myers-Briggs. All very a-musing. Rather than giving businesses medicine are these really sweet poison?

‘Don’t be ridiculous Paul’ I hear you say. ‘These tools are really helpful, what’s your problem?’ 

Well to some extent I agree. Where I start to have a difficulty is when these tools are talked about ‘as if’ they the only game in town, the only way of understanding problems, the definitive way to describe the competitive space or the definite way of characterising people. 

Then I think these tools are ‘muse-like’. Tending to poison rather than medicine, something to be rote learned rather than understood and unthinkingly applied without a care for the assumptions they are built upon. 

Assumptions such as ‘the business environment can be objectively analysed and measured’ or ‘human beings can be categorically typed regardless of social context’.

Eric Fromm in his book To Have or To Be offered what I believe to be sage advice. He said we should beware of people who claim to have the answers. In the world of management this manifests itself as Normative advice. Advice that is purportedly factual and uncontestable, the norm, what you should or must do.

So what is a management educator to do? How can they create value if they aren’t telling executives what to do to solve their problems?

I wonder if it is fundamentally about developing awareness of how we make sense of this thing we call management (cf Alvesson and Wilmott). Thus it’s about inviting practioners to think about their assumed philosophy, about the nature of the business world and how it influences the reasoning they use to decide the actions they take?

Perhaps we are about visiting practioners in their psychic prisons and providing some intellectual medicine? 

What if businesses followed the advice of Plato mentioned by Boethius.

“That states [substitute organisations here] would be happy,  either if philosophers ruled them, or if it should so befall that their rulers would turn philosophers.”

How should the value of a university degree be measured?

Jo Johnson is promoting the idea of a Teaching excellence framework for universities and talks of students getting the ‘teaching’ they deserve. Seems like a good idea. There are some provocative issues within this proposal however.

Can we assume that talking of getting the ‘teaching’ they deserve was a slip of the tongue? Surely Mr Johnson means getting the education they deserve? There is an important difference that is to my view grounded in an emancipatory philosophy. It’s not just about getting stuff into someone’s head (teaching) it’s also about getting stuff out. Karen Millheim explains in Adult Education (2011) :
“According to Sprague and Brown (2008), ‘education provides students with cognitive tools and self-efficacy to understand and impact the broader structures that shape their life chances’ (p. 2). Viewed this way, emancipa- tory educators hold the potential to shape instruction in a way that cultivates this way of thinking. Their role is to advocate for social justice, posing problems and eliciting dialogue from their students (Tisdell & Taylor, 1999).”

The clue therefore is in the title; higher ‘education’ not higher ‘teaching’ . Universities are not simply beefed up secondary schools tasked with getting stuff into pupils heads they are the social context where the rite of passage of changing from being a taught student to a self-directed learner takes place. The introduction to subject knowledge is but one dimension of this experience. 

Are we to assume from Jo Johnson’s slip that he thinks a university is just a big secondary school and that they should be managed accordingly? We can assume that he is steeped in a managerialist ideology because he has an MBA and this might guide his perspective.

I have an MBA too and I know just how biased the philosophical assumptions of this qualification can be towards linear rational objectivity. The belief that nothing has value unless it can be measured.  So no wonder he leans to measuring things without necessarily expressing  ‘what’ needs measuring and why , what appropriate types of measure might be and why, and scant attention to any unintended consequences of metric selection that may result. (Just witness the coaching of pupils to pass exams, directional assignment explanations and repeated resubmission of work that takes place in our schools).

The TEF is proposed to run in parallel with another quality framework posited by the higher education funding council. Seems like the bureacrats can’t get enough of measuring things. Metriphilia is a predatory bureaucrats disease (cf David Graeber). Already the administration compliance burden on UK universities is £1billion per annum. 

Jo’s other target of interest is grade inflation. This is laudable and at the same time ironic. The number of instances of students telling me what grade they deserve and expect and the frequency of challenging grades is on the increase. Of course it is! We keep telling students they are customers. 

People who go to university are both customers of the institution and at the same time students having their intellect developed and tested. This latter process may not necessarily be the comfortable experience a mere customer might demand or expect.

Students in customer mode know that if their grade expectations aren’t met they can anonymously undercut the reputation of academics (without evidence btw) on module feedback forms, student voice meetings and the NSS. So reasons to give a 2:1 are sought by academics because of the preference to accede to the view of the customer rather than grading the student at a 2:2. 

So called grade inflation is further reinforced by university pedagogic experts and external examiners recommending ‘the full range of marks’ is used. In other words the 70% glass grade ceiling that defines a first is shattered. 

Of course the tax payer should get value for money. As any MBA student will tell you though, ‘what you measure is what you get’ (cf Norton and Kaplan) and you might just get a secondary school rather than a university! 

See  An Ofsted for universities too

Why are universities still here?

I have a curated newspaper on MOOCs (see left panel of this blog). 

This evening I read an interesting post that appeared in MOOC Digest Daily titled Why is the university still here from a  Techcrunch article.

It mentioned that Silicon Valley has been on a mission to disrupt the conventional university for years and MOOCs are an aspect of that attempt.

I found one stat’ very interesting. That was the high right of non completion of courses. 

I’m sort of surprised that this seems, well, like a surprise. Well it probably does if you see higher education as merely the absorbtion of subject knowledge; it probably does if you think that higher education can be achieved merely through technical interfaces and it probably does if you see higher education as a consumer service rather than a rite of passage.

What might the low completion rates signify?  Possibly that people fall in love with the idea of knowing stuff but dislike the experience of effortfully studying it. 

It might also indicate that as a taster of  a subject the topic might initially appeal and the substance after all does not. In which case the MOOC has done its job. 

I would also suggest that it’s slightly mistaken to think that because the university has been around for a while its past its sell buy date and it’s time to get rid of it. This assumes that universities are as fusty and unchanging as Gormengast. Not really the case even though there are some quirky traditions.,

Wonder if a better question might be ‘why are MOOCs still here’?

The phenomenon of unintended side effects and the student experience 

Caring about the student experience is a good thing. Being transparent is a good thing. When such principles loose their dimension of common sense and are used to justify bureaucratic obsession with protocols and micro-data there are adverse consequences as this Guardian article discusses.

Pressure to bump grades and academic workload

Seeing Students As Customers De-Values Their Rite Of Passage 

I want to suggest that there are some genuine downsides to the crude idea that students should be seen ‘as if ‘ they are customers.

My suggestion is based on the assumption that a student’s higher education experience is more than the mere consumption of a service and  constitutes a transformational rite of passage.

Through this journey the student leaves their old self behind and becomes someone different and new.

Thomas Armstrong wrote an informative article in the American Institute for Learning and Development titled Marking our passage from one life stage to the next that discusses this theme.

Central to the idea of rite of passage (see the work of Van Gennep 1873-1957) is the notion that a person crosses a threshold (a concern with liminality) from the familiar safe and comforting into the unfamiliar risky and uncomfortable.

Making this transition into the unknown is often an unpleasant but necessary experience.

It seems to me that the idea whereby students are treated as customers cherry picks some ideas from the commercial world and grafts them onto the educational world.

This grafting airbrushes out of the picture some important things. Students  will judge the satisfaction of their experience from within the limitations of their current understanding. Thus of course many things in their transformative journey such as ambiguity, intellectual demands, uncertainty will be unpleasant. The value of the transformation is yet to be understood .

The instinctive human reaction is to therefore ‘avoid’ this unpleasantness, demand clarity, structure and instruction as to what to do and how to do it.

Now as a customer if these things are not provided then the service is deemed to be poor. Whereas as a student going through a rite of passage these things are essential for the transformation to have value.

The old self believes studying for a degree is simply the aquistion of subject knowledge, whereas  the new self realises (only afterwards) it is the aquisition of a new sense of identity, a deeper wisdom and a humility about the certainty of knowledge.

Treat the student as a customer and you will of course increase temporary satisfaction but you eliminate transformative value. It could be argued that say a £9k course fee means you should be treated as a customer, a retail ‘shopper’ however what this really results in is a terrible return on investment when viewed in the context personal growth over the course of a lifetime.

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