Demonstrating the value of higher education

One of the most disagreeable experiences during my time as President of Dublin City University was attending a debate in Dáil Eireann (Irish Parliament) on higher education, about ten years ago now. The topic of the debate was higher education, and more particularly whether universities were receiving adequate funding. One after another, TDs (members of the Parliament) got up and read from (or more usually recited from memory) letters they said they had received from members of the public complaining of waste and malpractice in the institutions.

But there was also another theme running through the contributions: that universities were receiving huge sums of public money, and that this lavish expenditure was not producing any impact. The country had huge economic and social needs but the universities – so the claim went – were not making much of a contribution to their resolution.

As I have noted previously and elsewhere, it is of vital importance that universities seek and maintain the confidence of wider stakeholder groups; not doing so endangers our sustainability. But on this occasion what was going through my mind was how little the country’s legislators understood the benefits society derived from universities; not just in terms of the wider education provided, but in the discoveries and innovation coming out of higher education institutions that powered the economy and secured social progress. If we are really measuring impact, it is huge.

Virtually all universities can demonstrate a dramatic impact. The scale of this is demonstrated by the ‘impact case studies’ that have been published in the aftermath of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework. My own university, for example, is shown to have provided benefits to society in areas such as artists working in the public sphere, good practice in the treatment of asylum seekers, mental health needs of people affected by disasters or major incidents, obesity management, data-driven decision-making, energy and the environment, and so forth. Other examples are shown in respect of pretty much every UK university.

Ten years ago I wanted to stand up and tell the parliamentarians that they could make few better and more impact-driven investments of public money than in higher education. That is still very much true ten years on.

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6 Comments on “Demonstrating the value of higher education”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    So, if “virtually all universities can demonstrate a dramatic impact”, why is it that the legislators’ perception persist and universities are not adequately funded?

  2. The fact that universities may be making a significant contribution does not mean that they could be making the significant contribution more efficiently or even making a better contribution with the same resources. As one who has been in the system for over 30 years and who now has a daughter in university I must agree that there is substantial waste in the system. Whether or not higher education contributes to society (and I believe it does), this waste should be addressed. If the waste that is obvious to the public is not addressed they will continue to treat us with suspicion.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Brian, on the matter of efficiency you might find the recent report on the matter of interest:
      However, I suspect that matters of efficiency are not enough to explain why HE is not adequately funded

      • Hi Anna.

        Just got to have a quick look at the Executive Summary. It just claims to be meeting efficiency targets but I did not get to dig down to see how ambitious or innovative these were (we usually set low targets so we can exceed them). I was also trying to figure out if this was a bunch of higher ed. management people trying to justify government expenditure in their sector and found this oversight committee – not sure what many of the acronymns represent:

        Professor Sir Ian Diamond, Principal and Vice-Chancellor,
        University of Aberdeen (Chair)
        Alison Allden, Chief Executive, Higher Education Statistics Agency
        Dr Ghazwa Alwani-Starr, Director of Property & Facilities Management, University
        of Roehampton (as Chair-elect of the Association of University Directors of Estates)
        Sir David Bell, Vice-Chancellor, University of Reading
        Jeremy Clayton, Director, Research Base, Department for Business,
        Innovation and Skills
        Steve Egan, Deputy Chief Executive, HEFCE
        Helen Fairfoul, Chief Executive, UCEA
        Sarah Jackson, Director of Research, Partnerships and Innovation,
        University of Liverpool (as Director of the N8 Research Partnership)
        Alison Johns, Chief Executive, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education
        Veryan Johnston, Director of HR, University of Newcastle
        (as Chair of University Human Resources)
        Andrew Lewis, Chief Operating Officer, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research
        Council (representing Research Councils UK)
        Dr Jonathan Nicholls, Registrar, University of Cambridge (as Chair of the
        Association of Heads of University Administration)
        Professor Nick Petford, Vice-Chancellor, The University of Northampton
        Robert Rabone, Chief Financial Officer, The University of Sheffield
        (as Chair of the British Universities Finance Directors Group)


  3. James Fryar Says:

    I think it’d be pretty easy to produce a number that would satisfy politicians … all you do is calculate the number of college graduates, calculate their average earnings, then calculate the tax revenue generated as a result of their employment. Divide this total revenue by the total amount of taxpayers’ money invested in the third-level sector and the result can be brandished from that moment onwards. Yes, it’s a narrow definition. But money talks.

  4. Tim Kovar Says:

    Thanks for the timely post. I am working on a proposal for PhD research on enhancing value in 3rd level media education.
    I think the financing of 3rd level in Ireland is hypocritical: is the government going to fund a high quality education system, or should students pay for the economic value they gain from their education? At present, we have neither.
    Of course, that means we agree on what constitutes value and ‘high quality’ in 3rd level education. I’m all for the emphasis on STEM education and the benefits it brings to individuals and society. But it seems a shallow fashion for politician’s to support science education without a coherent understanding of the role of higher education.
    In the politicians’ defense, I’m not sure that my colleagues in lecturing have a coherent picture of the role of higher education. We believe we are doing a good job, and trying to do better for our students. I think we need more discussion of what it means to do a ‘good’ job, both for our students and our role in society.
    But I work in media education. Why does society need more photographers or artists? Are the students who sign up for these courses just naive? I think higher education can offer a number of benefits, both personal and fiscal. We need to offer a sophisticated rebuttal to those TDs who you heard complaining about waste in 3rd level?
    I’m looking forward to reading the reports and studying the Research Excellence Framework, and finding out more about analysing value in humanities and media.
    I’d appreciate any comments or suggestions you might offer.

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