Turning the tide on perceptions of value: what do students think value for money really means?

A little over a year and half since we last wrote about the value of higher education (HE), which highlighted a downward trend in perception of value, it would seem the tide may be turning.

As we previously highlighted, one of the headline findings of the Higher Education Policy Institute’s (HEPI’s) 2017 Student Academic Experience Survey was falling perceptions of value for money, with the percentage of students perceiving university not to be value for money almost doubling in the previous five years. But the 2018 survey highlights a distinct turnaround, with students reporting “statistically significant improvements in perceptions of value for money from their higher education experience.” Could this be the start of a new trend?

‘Promising upturn’

Among the main highlights of the 2018 survey, which describes a “promising upturn”, include:

  • 38% of students in the UK perceive ‘good or very good’ value from their HE course – an increase of three percentage points from last year’s survey, reversing a five-year downward trend
  • fewer students studying in the UK (32%) perceive ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ value, compared with 34% in 2017
  • there is a clear, statistically significant, improvement among students from England, representing the largest number of students, where 35% report ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value
  • there has been an improvement among students domiciled in Scotland (though not statistically significant) where 60% of students surveyed perceive ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value, continuing to report the most positive opinions overall, while students from Wales and EU students studying in the UK report similar perceptions of value as last year, 48% and 47% respectively. Perceptions of value in Northern Ireland remain in decline – albeit not statistically significant
  • Students at institutions which secured a Gold award in the Teaching Excellence Framework are more likely to perceive they have received good value, but there is no noticeable difference on this measure between Silver and Bronze-rated institutions

While it should not be forgotten that almost a third of students still perceive poor value, which remains a concern, this reversal of a five-year trend is undoubtedly encouraging. Moreover, what makes the latest HEPI survey particularly interesting is that for the first time, it includes evidence on what lies behind these perceptions.

What does value for money mean?

As our previous blog showed, the increasing cost of HE has contributed to the decline in perceived value for money as many believe the financial cost is not worth the career prospects. But it isn’t all about the financial element, although, as has been previously argued, perceptions of quality are not always clearly articulated. To help make things clearer, the latest survey incorporates new sections on: what factors relate to good or poor value, happiness with subject choice and experiences of different ethnic groups.

These new sections provide greater insight into just what students perceive as value for money. Interestingly, when asked about what factors influence their perceptions of value (chosen from a pre-defined, randomised list), 68% of students who felt they received ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value for money regard teaching quality as the most important factor behind this, followed closely by course content (67%) and facilities (62%).

None of the top five reasons for perceiving ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value related to financial cost, whereas price dominated the list for poor value where two out of the five most popular answers related to cost – tuition fees (62%) and cost of living (37%). The survey suggests that these findings indicate that cost and value are difficult to separate in the minds of students and that a perception of value for money can be difficult to attain given the level of current fees.

Career prospects and campus environment and university buildings were also cited as significant factors driving good value. This suggests that investment in the physical environment should be included among other priorities, given its status as a ‘major contributor’ to the student experience.

No time for complacency

Despite these promising findings about the student experience, there are still real concerns. Perhaps somewhat worrying is the finding that past gains in teaching quality have not been built upon, with students’ ratings of teaching staff down slightly on last year. Given the importance of teaching quality in perceptions of value, if this does not change it could very well contribute to a return to the downward trend in value perceptions.

Other concerns highlighted by the survey, include  perceptions of the wellbeing of students, which remain relatively low and continue to fall. In addition, some ethnic minorities tend to experience barriers and have lower perceptions of value.

As highlighted by Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI and a co-author of the report, the survey “exposes the areas where improvements are needed.” He also argues that “institutions have to work harder to ensure all students are catered for in full.”

Nevertheless, the survey emphasises that the fact the student experience remains positive should be recognised, particularly given the level of financial burden that students take on and the widening range of alternative routes available. Hopefully, the next survey will reveal a continuation of the upward trend in perceptions of value.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested in some of our previous posts:

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