Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Value for money

Universities seems to be having a torrid time, at least as far as their standing in the political firmament goes. As well as pension headaches for USS member institutions (mostly the pre-1992's), there are high-profile stories on VC salaries, Lord Adonis' campaign about a fee-setting cartel, and (low) teaching contact hours. So far, so not very good at all.

There's a feeling that this might be more than a quiet season set of grumbles: David Morris at Wonkhe writes interestingly on this. For what its worth, I suspect that this is indeed politically driven rather than accidental. Maybe Lord Adonis is marking out ground for his re-emergence within a new model Labour Party; maybe Jo Johnson is preparing for tough discussions around future fees. But whatever the end point, it's worth looking at whether the concerns are real.

An underlying point is value for money. The charge is that (English) students don't get a lot for their money. One quick way to look at this is university spend on staff, the single biggest item on university's accounts. HESA publish handy data on student numbers and staff numbers. It's straightforward to calculate the ratio of students to academic staff over the years.

source: HESA, my calculations
The data show that from 2004-05 to 2011-12, for every member of academic staff there were about 14 students. In 2012-13 - the first year of the new fees regime in England - this ratio started to fall, and by 2015-16 there were just over 11 students for every member of academic staff.

Does this mean that the stories of low contact hours, and questionable value for money are wrong? Not necessarily - the data doesn't speak to the reality at individual universities or programmes, nor does it describe any individual student's experience. But it does show that universities have invested in the most important element of their provision: academic staff.

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