The UK government’s latest proposals for the higher education section have been reported as presenting a market-led approach where students will have an increasing power of selection and be encouraged to act like consumers.
But surely the value of a degree should not be related to a sales or marketing-approach to education, but be based on the reputation of the course being studied? In terms of a PR degree, it’s about time the industry started putting a value on higher education or we may as well accept all we offer is a set of skills that anyone can learn. If we don’t value PR’s reputation as an occupation for graduates, we can’t expect to be valued by the marketplace. For too long, PR practitioners have presented somewhat proudly, what they do on the basis of its low cost and lack of academic rigour. “Just believe us it works; besides, it’s cheaper than advertising” is the traditional sales pitch.
There is a fine balance between advocating lower prices and maintaining quality of reputation. In general, quality costs – whether that’s in PR or higher education. To an extent the government appears to recognise this, but has reduced quality to a numbers game based on “average salary of former students, the cost of accommodation, teaching hours and satisfaction ratings from previous students.”
None of these are actual measures of the quality of the educational input nor its outcomes in respect of the lifelong grounding in knowledge that going to University should provide.
Contact time can be an important factor – but it depends on the quality of the people with whom you have contact, the way in which they inspire personal learning (the heart of a University education), and what happens in that contact time. (We should know this in PR where our time is money.)
Satisfaction of students is also a spurious measure – anyone involved in higher education knows that what makes students happy is often not what is educationally best for them. We all need to be challenged, stretched and go through a pain barrier if we are to expand our knowledge. Real, deep learning and robust skills development isn’t easy – and often isn’t enjoyable at the time. It is normally only at the end of a hard challenge that we recognise its value – when we can be surprised at what we’ve actually achieved. (Again, the same applies in PR practice, where we should be prepared to advise clients honestly, not just trying to keep them happy.)
The “market value” approach in terms of salaries or employability is another short-term focus. Education is not like rolling out the latest Summer gizmo to make a quick profit. If we listen to employers in PR for example, their focus is always on the tactical skills rather than appreciating that a degree should not simply be about how to write press releases or organise events.
It is not surprising then to read that the government is considering opening out “university” education to the private sector. It is easier to tick all the boxes at a price as a private provider. These do not generally provide the investment in knowledge, research and other support services that are now expected of a traditional University. Perhaps the argument is that these can also be commoditised. However, will the market invest in developing the knowledge base that is being studied – probably not altruistically. I have asked before what is the PR profession is doing to support University education – but not seen any movement on the five areas I identified.
If we look at the CIPR qualifications, a professional high standard can be offered by private providers for a fraction of the cost of an undergraduate or postgraduate degree. But this is not an equal comparison. We are generally working with self-motivated, practitioners who devote considerable time in gaining a qualification alongside their practical experience (ie the day job). And even here, we know that the drive to sign up for a professional qualification is normally that of the individual rather than their company.
Private provision of undergraduate qualifications is going to be much more difficult to achieve – unless we can offer more of a blended environment in vocational areas like PR, where student practitioners gain work experience alongside their education. So they are earning as they study or being funded to study.
But the danger there is that the focus will be on training rather than on knowledge (which requires robust academic reflection, not simply case studies of practice). Of course, it is vital to be able to do things in life – but where the real value of a degree lies is in knowing why rather than just what to do. This is the optimum level at which a degree pays, rather than in short-term “happy customer”, value for money terms.