According to the recent survey of Hepi-HEA, a mere 37 percent of British students believe their university and college experience represents excellent value for money. There is always a temptation to blame government austerity, teaching quality and declining course, or any of the other ‘usual suspects’. But in this case, it is worth resisting.
Academic standards and Government policy are obviously significant; 53 percent of students perceived their course to represent good value for money in 2012, but those surveyed were not subject to the tripled £9,000 a year fees. That we have seen a 16 percent decline four years on is certainly no coincidence.
Over two-thirds of complaints related to educational issues, several of which deserve attention: 54 percent of students want feedbacks on coursework within one to two weeks, but less than a third really get it within this time period. Only 16 percent of students believe teaching staff show original, creative methods, and only 18 percent demonstrate they enhance their educational knowledge and skills on a daily basis. This is certainly caused for concern.
But for all the severities of government cuts – and for all the supposed educational deficiencies – students have other reasons to doubt their university experience offers good value for money. As 85 percent describe themselves as satisfied with their course, it is fair to say many of the reasons have nothing to do with the class – so what exactly are they?
Depending on who you ask, universities do not think of themselves as businesses, but it is increasingly clear to all that students think of themselves as customers.
Again, it is possible to blame this development on tuition fee increases, but it can be more correctly described as a by-product of tuition fees as a concept. Pre-September 1998 – when they were first introduced – it was much simpler to buy into lofty rhetoric about high-minded scholarly rigor, pursuits and active participation in a vibrant intellectual community, as all you had to pay were low-interest maintenance loans. Even if the support team was useless, the professors inattentive, and the amenities unsatisfactory, they, at least, came at little or no cost to students.
For almost 20 years now, attending university has been a transactional experience. If students are unhappy with their end of the bargain, it is because they expect a level of ‘customer service’ that corresponds with their level of potential risk and investment.
Tuition is only a part of this equation. The ‘university experience’ marketed to under graduates is, amongst other things, a difficult alchemy of academics, support, technology and social activities. Value for money is about including all of these things – and more.
However, there’s also a clear belief university administrations have a duty to communicate openly and simply with enrollees: 75 percent believe quality of communication on university campus is “important” or “very important”, while 73 percent think the same of access to information on university campus.
Concerns about processes and systems were another recurring theme: 50 percent of students maintain ease of payments for services such as field trips and tuition is very important, while 71 percent value access to enough administrative support.
Seven out of ten of those surveyed believe compliance with data security legislation imperative – perhaps unsurprisingly, in an age where information is both vulnerable and valuable. The report also suggested vanity metrics such as league table rankings – which 31 percent believe to be the most influential on their choice of college or university – were less important than factors such as impact on employability, which was favoured by 36 percent.
Again, none of this is meant to downplay the significance of solid tuition – just to illustrate that “value for money” is an idea or concept informed by several different variables. There are a number of reasons why students might feel like they are not getting what they paid for services and this will effect on universities’ ability to recruit in the long-term.
While they cannot do much about tuition fees – nor will they be mainly inclined to – if colleges or universities are to enhance the overall customer guarantee and experience the continued retention and recruitment of students, they must think about how they can reform their internal processes to enhance communication, convenience, and security.