Do Universities Give You Value for Money?

Thursday, June 13, 2013 12:00 AM

Johnny Rich, media and higher education specialist with various roles on leading brands such as Push, Push Talks and UniQs, mulls over the issues around value for money in higher education

At nine grand a year, university is an expensive business. But the thing is, that's not what it costs. It's both more than that and less.


Let me explain. But before I do, let's think about what you get for your money. Last month a study was published (by HEPI/Which? University) that said that even though tuition fees trebled last year, students' contact hours - that's teaching time to you and me - stayed basically the same. In other words, you're paying more, but you're still getting an average of just 14 hours and 14 minutes of classes per week.

Or at least, that's how the media reported the story. But that's a pretty dumb way to look at it. It's not the quantity that counts, it's the quality. An hour spent one-on-one with an inspiring world expert on your subject beats ten hours of boring lectures in a hall with 200 other students. At different unis on different courses, you might have either of these, both, or neither.

Besides learning isn't something that's done to you. It's something you do. Any uni applicant who looks at that 14 hours of teaching time and thinks, 'Less than 3 hours a day? What a doss!' is in for a surprise.

Uni is mostly about studying rather than being taught. The teaching helps you work out what to study. It helps you understand better what you're studying. It doesn't replace it. At some times in your university career and on some courses, it's actually better to have less teaching so you can spend more time studying.

So, 'value for money' and 'contact hours' are definitely not the same thing. The way the course is taught is more important and whether that suits how you like to learn. Also, what else do you get for your money?

Your fees pay for the whole university experience. That includes the teaching, sure. But it's also the library, the campus, the students' union, the clubs and sports, the careers advisers, the welfare team and maybe a whole bunch of other stuff.

What's the whole student experience like at one place versus another? Is it what you want? Because we're all different and no one place suits everyone. That's the kind of detail that covers.

Another more relevant way of measuring value for money might be to work out what your investment - of money, but also of time - will bring you in terms of a happier, more rewarding life. That's the question that BestCourse4Me focuses on. Where will your degree take you? Can you put a price on whether that's worth it for you?

And what is that price? As I said, it's both more and less than £9,000 a year. It's more because that money covers your fees only. You probably need about the same again each year to live on.

And since most people have to borrow that money as a student loan, it'll actually be more by the time they pay it back because there'll be interest to pay too.

But the price is less too, because most people will never pay back their student loans - or not the whole thing plus interest. You only pay back a slice of whatever you earn after you leave uni. The bigger your salary cake, the bigger the slice you pay, but if your cake's too small (under £21,000 per year), there's no slice at all.

If, after 30 years, the slices still haven't repaid everything, then they'll wipe the rest of your debt. Gone. Only the graduates who earn the most are ever likely to get to that point when they've paid it all off - and, let's face it, they can afford it.

So it doesn't much matter what your fees are or what your student loan debt is (other debts matter), you're probably going to be paying the same amount for 30 years anyway based on what you earn, not on what you owe.

For all these reasons, talking about value for money is not very helpful if you're thinking about where to study. The only question that really matters is, Is it what you want? You can't put a price on that.

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