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:
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:
- Value as simply something that is immediately observed and experienced
- 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