Do universities really (not) offer value for money?

Do universities really (not) offer value for money?

This question emerges from a recent ComRes survey which showed that four in ten students felt that their university course had not been worth the fee that they had paid, as reported by BBC Radio 5 Live.

This is in comparison to the last national student survey, which indicated 86% student satisfaction. So what are the factors that could affect these answers?

Firstly, it very much depends on whom you ask, and when. Those who have opted to study a STEM course (science, technology, engineering and medical subject areas), or go into professional education, will rightly expect a quicker return on investment. However, those who chose social sciences, creative subjects, and other humanities studies, are less likely to get an immediate reward. For example, many STEM courses lead directly into specific careers - e.g., a medical course will steer a student towards being a doctor - but humanities courses can be less focused.

The good news is that graduates with a more generic study background often surpass students who studied more focused and/or professional courses over time. So, if the BBC does the same survey with the same students in a number of years' time, the outcome is likely to be quite different.

Another consideration is that when it comes to 'value for money', students are not just referring to the salary they can expect to earn, but also to the tuition and other services that they received in return for their hefty fee payments. 

In the case of expensive subject areas like engineering or medicine, even £9000 is still extremely good value, since the cost of delivery is so much higher due to the equipment and training students receive. Whether students in the so-called "softer" areas are getting the same value is indeed questionable - and since we have undifferentiated fees, it is possible that in some cases one group of students is subsidising another group. 

Taking all this into account, there is a good case for students demanding not only a set number of hours, but also a range of professional and personal development programmes. These are likely to be much more helpful in their future career than pure subject knowledge. 

Oxbridge colleges have well understood this facet of education for years, and so have a number of private providers who are used to operating in competitive environments. It is quite right that graduates in some fields of study question whether their fees are justified by the limited teaching that they receive and the ever decreasing number of teaching weeks per year.

So yes: it is time for universities to do some serious reviews on what they offer to large segments of their students. But when one looks at the bigger picture rather than individual cases, studying at higher education institutions does remain a good investment in all fields when it comes to judging the return on students' investment.

This story was first published on The Huffington Post.

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