How to translate Value in Higher Education?

Posted on 22/09/2011


Recently, because of the questions raised both in the US and in UK on the outcomes of investing in university studies (see for example the Financial Times article on the OECD report: ), the concept of value has emerged in the discussion on the future of higher education.
I think it is important to remind us what value is and how it is measured.
Value is defined in the Webster dictionary as a relative worth, utility, or importance. Value is indeed not absolute but relative. And it is relative because it is PERCEIVED (the concept of perceived value is at the core of the development of marketing as a discipline). It means that different units will have a different perception AND a different measure of value and that, as a consequence, these perceptions have to be addressed differently by the provider of a product or service. Value is then measured by the providers by asking the current and potential users of their products or services what their perception is (positive or negative) and then use different sub-criteria to precise what they like and dislike. They use this information to enhance the perceived characteristics of their offer.
How does that translate in higher education?
First, it means that the different stakeholders will have different perceptions, at the individual and at the group level. It explains why the current debate can be very confusing. Academics individually and as a group, students, university vice-chancellors, ministers,… will all have a different reading on what a valuable higher education is. The problem is that the academic world does not behave the same way as the rest of the world! In a standard setting, when an organisation provides a product or service (for profit or not), it tries to work on the perceived added value for… the user of its product or service. And who is the user in the case of higher education? The obvious answer is the student. There is a less obvious but as valid answer: the organisation which will employ this student once he/she graduates. Strangely enough, lots of academics advocate that these users should not be the unit of analysis when we discuss the value(s) of higher education. It is also the stand taken by most rankings (including the ARWU and the THE rankings), which use mostly criteria related to the value as measured by academics. When the THE ranking is proud to ask thousands of academics to tell us what they think of other institutions, it’s clearly focused on the perception of the providers (the academics), not the users.
For the readers familiar with the rankings of business schools, the focus on the users is obvious. Most of them will use criteria such as the salary after graduation (monetary value), the number of alumni (network value), the time spent to find a job after graduation (the value of the graduated student as perceived by the employer), etc…
That’s why the question of the value of a degree for a student is a valid and genuine one.
Then, how do you measure the perceived value?
There are several answers. First, there is the immediate perceived value which is measured by asking the current students how they perceive their education. It is done through their evaluation of the courses and units done regularly inside the university (or at least it should be done regularly). But, there is also the post-usage value, which is measured by asking the alumni how they perceive the value of their studies 5 or 10 years after they graduated. Then, you can also measure the perceived value for the second-level users (= employers) on your degrees: what should the content be to give the most useful knowledge, skills and behaviours for the students?
With this information, along with the input from the other stakeholders (including the academics of course), universities can then work on the assurance of learning, which will set the learning expectations and the assurance that graduates will achieve them.
Of course, it means that the measures have to be done regularly and that the courses/programs/units offered have also to be modified regularly to try to always provide the best value as it is perceived by the users. In the business schools world again, assurance of learning is one of key characteristics evaluated by local and international accreditors (AACSB for example).

If this process is followed correctly, universities will be closer to the expectations of the students and of the society in general and a common perception of value could even emerge, making public policies more efficient.