Higher cost no guarantee of higher education quality

The former education advisor to Tony Blair's Labour administration told an international higher education conference in London that higher prices for a university degree should not be seen as any guarantee that students were getting better quality education.

Sir Michael Barber, co-author of the far-reaching report An Avalanche is Coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead, was speaking at the opening of a conference on “The International Higher Education Revolution: Impacts on mobility, qualifications, networks”, staged in London by The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, or OBHE, from 11-12 December.

The event paid particular attention to developments in online learning, such as massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Sir Michael, now chief education advisor at Pearson, said many of the higher education models that had marched triumphantly across the globe in the second half of the 20th century were broken and needed “unbundling”.

He also called for greater reliance on the less risk-averse private sector and for more private-public sector partnerships to help higher education make the changes necessary to avoid the avalanche threatening many traditional universities.

In particular, he singled out what he described as “the declining value of degrees in the job market with the rising price of higher education qualifications” as one of the major threats to the old order.

Sir Michael produced the Avalanche is Coming report with two Pearson colleagues, Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rizvi, for the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) last March and said the original warning that an avalanche was coming might not have gone far enough.

’Avalanche’ warning understated?

“The avalanche is coming faster and it is coming sooner and is going to be bigger than we thought back in March when we published the report.

“Looking back at history, what brings transformational change isn't competition from within the sector. It is the creation of a totally new sector. What killed the wonderful network of British canals was not another canal, but the advent of the railway: just as the post office was killed by email.

“Sometimes it is not one thing, but lots of different things. People say universities are where you will meet your future husband or wife, but now you can do that online – even if I am not sure I would want to do that.”

Drawing the parallel with teaching and learning, Sir Michael said he held an academic post at a university in Moscow, but hardly ever goes there – just as the film director David Puttnam runs courses from his studio at his home in Ireland for film students around the world.

Accessible quality that people can afford

That is the attraction of online learning and new developments with MOOCs, suggested Sir Michael, who argued that MOOCs could provide accessible quality courses that people could afford.

He said: “The economy is changing. The nature of work is changing, the skills that employers demand and the skills we need to find employment are changing.”

“This is making people think differently about their university education and universities need to think about changing what they offer.

“We have massive youth unemployment. Some of that is unavoidable, but some of that is from university courses that people thought would help them into employment."

Some degrees ‘losing value’

“Generally, getting a degree is a good thing in terms of employment, but there are some degrees from some places that are sometimes losing their value.

“When you have rising cost and the value of the output falling, or at least in many cases questionable, plus change in the economy, some of the current standard models of higher education begin to look problematic.”

Sir Michael was particularly critical of the way the rankings were influenced by factors that seemed to equate higher price with higher quality, and suggested that universities were afraid of setting the price of their courses too low.

“If you set the price too low people will think it is not very good – a bit like buying a bottle of wine on a Friday night. If it only costs £2.99 you will think it is not very good."

Break the cost-quality paradigm

“Someone needs to break the cost-quality paradigm. In other parts of our lives you can have improving quality and falling cost,” said Sir Michael.

When the Avalanche is Coming report was published last March with its key message that main higher education required “deep, radical and urgent transformation”, it received a mixed reaction.

Professor Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, said it overstated the likely impact of MOOCs and the private sector and failed to see that austerity threatened a “much more significant financial avalanche”, according to a report in Times Higher Education.

But Sir Michael told the OBHE conference: “The avalanche is not just a threat, it also presents huge opportunities. But the thing you don't do is stand still in the face of an avalanche.”

* Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and public relations consultant who regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO, and on his website.