Monday, June 22, 2015

Value for money in education. A few thoughts from an eternal student!

I was reading the article on the BBC website about tuition fees and student responses to the question of value for money. It got me thinking, at least for a short time, about how you might actually measure value for money for a degree and whether students are actually best placed to make a judgement on the issue. That might sound a bit patronising, it isn't intended to be.

Years ago I read Jim Collin's book Good to Great, and the monograph that followed that focussed on non-profit organisations. I heard him speak a couple of times and was struck by by a number of things he said. From what I recall I think he would remind us that if we're going to measure value for money with respect to something that is non-profit then we will need to think very carefully about the measures we use. You can't equate a degree course with a new car or a holiday. Value for money in education is much more complex that a simple matter of money in and money out. Education is not a business, don't let anyone suggest otherwise.

That doesn't mean that good practice has no place in education, but I worry that some degree courses could disappear simply because there's little chance that they will lead to high paid job at the end. Anyway, back to the measures.

Interestingly students who studies humanities rated their courses lower in general that those who did engineering and science. I wonder why. Could it be that fresh from school or college, where they would have experienced very similar contact time with tutors across all subjects, they now face very different levels of contact depending on the type of subject they are studying. I have done a science degree, a humanities degree and a masters degree. I've also squeezed in a professional BTech programme and a few diplomas along the way.

My first degree was in science and a long time ago! We had practicals, maybe as much as 18 hours a week, and around 11 hours of lectures and 2 hours of tutorials. That comes to around 30/32 hours contact time. I can't remember the schedule for my second degree in theology, but the contact time was less, maybe around 12/15 hours. By the time I did my masters it was down to three seminars a week, each one about 1.25 hours long, and these were mostly student lead. Of course there were opportunities to talk with tutors and discuss essays and dissertations, but I'm just thinking about scheduled contact time.

My point is simple, contact time varies from subject to subject and with level of qualification too. If you only use contact hours as a measure then a degree in English might seem less good value that a degree in Chemistry but that is almost certainly not the case. That would sit neatly with the general distribution of the analysis in the article (44% good value for humanities compared to 66% for science and engineering).

Then there's the issue of student expectations. How well prepared for individual study are they when they reach university or college? Perhaps, as part of the survey, they should be asked how much time they spent in the library on average a week and how much personal study time did they set aside? When I went to university in the 70's I read a short book about studying. I don't recall either the title or the author but I do remember one principle. The book suggested that you worked on a simple 40 hour week. Subtracting the number of direct contact hours, lectures, seminars, practical etc, that gave you the average amount of personal study time you would need to complete the course to a reasonable level. It quickly becomes obvious that a practical heavy subject therefore requires less personal study time than a subject that has only lectures and seminars. If you need to read books and articles, that by its nature is not a contact activity. When I did my MA I was reading the equivalent of a 250 page book a day, 5 days a week for almost a year. I wrote in excess of 50,000 words. It simply doesn't compare with the science I studied first time around.

So, perhaps there is a much better way to measure value for money by asking better questions to get to the heart of how well a course met or changed a student's expectations of the experience in higher education. Where is the measure of value added to a student's life? What have they learnt that has changed their view of the world and the contribution they could make? Or is all to be reduced to some economic assessment of future earnings? When you're looking for value in education, remember that education has an innate value that is hard to measure and isn't about earning potential.

No comments: