VC calls on OfS to recognise social value of universities

Date 30.04.2018

Too narrow a focus on students getting ‘value for money’ risks ignoring the public good universities do, Vice Chancellor, Professor Nick Petford, has warned.

And he has called on the recently formed Office for Students to show leadership on the issue.

His comments, published in this week’s Times Higher Education, suggest a wider recognition of the benefits HE institutions provide is being lost in the preoccupation with student debt and fees

“Consumption of higher education enriches society in ways that exceed the marginal benefit to the student. Examples include lower unemployment rates, better health outcomes and higher productivity,” he wrote.

“It’s time we turned the spotlight on the ‘social value for money’ provided by universities to the taxpayer – not only as an antidote to the stagnation or disappearance of public services, but also in robust defence of universities under attack from those questioning their relevance.”

The University of Northampton recently joined ranks with nine other UK institutions, various social enterprise bodies, and the National Union of Students to call on the Office for Students (OfS) to explore this concept more explicitly.

Professor Petford’s hope is the OfS will embed social impact into the evaluation of English higher education.

“The public frameworks tracking the outputs of universities are largely silent on social value as a metric of success.

“Take, for example, the teaching excellence framework’s emphasis on individual satisfaction and earning potential, arguably at the expense of any wider benefit to society. Clearly, the TEF needs institutional focus to have any credibility. But a misplaced fixation on graduate salaries as a proxy for value for money risks penalising institutions training students for public sector jobs.”

He similarly criticised the Research Excellence Framework for its narrow definition of impact, and said he held out little hope the mooted Knowledge Exchange Framework would “accelerate the social impact of universities”.

He ended the opinion piece with a plea to the OfS to help universities build social infrastructure.

“The OfS has a golden opportunity to show leadership by promoting social value over the individual value-for-money benefit our students expect – and receive. Yes, the student interest must be protected. But the institutional interest must be protected, too, where there is a clear and vital overlap.

“Social value for money provides an overarching, ambitious narrative for the new regulator to champion.”