A Modest Proposal to Improve Value for Money at Universities

This piece by Alexandre Afonso originally appeared on his blog as A Modest Proposal to Improve Value for Money for Customers of Universities” and is reposted with his permission. Follow the ‘value for money’ conversation on Twitter at #vfmHE.


Students increasingly want “value for money” from their university education. On a number of occasions, I have heard or read students concerned about what they get for the money they pay, especially with respect to the different individual components of their education. I have received emails calculating the price of individual modules saying that for that money, they’d expect a speedy return of marked essays, or heard students voicing concerns about how much their were paying for each hour of lecture or seminar that they attended. A friend of mine at another university told me that one of their students had asked for money back after one seminar session was cancelled.

If you think about it, it is fairly normal that the introduction of fees has led students to put a price on each individual component of their education, and assess more closely the value that they get for their money. Arguably, the value of fees has tripled since they were introduced, but it is difficult to argue that the quality of teaching can triple as well.

Sign at Dublin Airport
A sign at the Dublin Airport gives a hint of a (modestly) proposed future for universities. (Photo: Joachim Pietsch/Flickr)

This movement of pricing is what many people call the “marketisation” of universities, often with a tone of disgust. I do not think that this marketisation has gone far enough. Students pay very high fees to get an education, but they get little choice about the product that they get. If you compare universities to true commercial enterprises, you’ll understand that they actually sell a very small number of products, and choice, which is primarily what a market system should deliver, is actually very limited. Choosing a degree works as if you could choose between different airlines to get from point A to point B, but each airline would only have one class, you wouldn’t be able to choose your seat, there would be no speedy boarding and the price would be the same if you booked three months or one day in advance. Precisely, airlines could be a good model for universities to pursue their movement of marketisation, with a much greater deal of choice in price and quality of products for their customers.

A simple way would be to introduce a clear and transparent price list for all the different services that we provide, allowing students to choose different speeds and quality of service. This could look like this:

Price of seats in lecture halls: 3 pounds standard, 5 pounds to sit in the front, luxury seats with reclinable back and built-in head massage to stimulate thinking: 10 pounds per lecture. Note-taking service by experienced unemployed PhDs available.

Replying to students’ emails: 2 pounds within a week, 5 pounds within 2 days, 10 pounds for a 1-day service. For an additional 3 pounds, correction of eventual spelling mistakes or typos.

Student meetings to discuss dissertations: 20 pounds an hour; 30 for a service with notes taken. Business premier service with gourmet coffee, cookies and shoe-polishing on demand (booking in advance recommended).

Recommendation letters: pricing per length and degree of positiveness of the letter. Extra pricing for the placement of specific words: “outstanding”, “amazing” and “mindblowing”: 30 pounds. Budget option available for 10 pounds, includes “alright” and “not too bad”.

Marking and feedback on essays. Budget service with no feedback and date of return undetermined: 10 pounds. Business premier service for 50 pounds: 5 pages of feedback, 10% top-up on the the grade, returned within 3 days on your doorstep by a drone, with a bottle of champagne. Personalized help in writing essays available on demand.

Credit cards and Paypal accepted.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alexandre Afonso is a lecturer in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London. He works on welfare state reforms, immigration politics, labor markets, populist radical right parties and the connections between them.

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Alexandre Afonso

Alexandre Afonso is a lecturer in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London. He works on welfare state reforms, immigration politics, labor markets, populist radical right parties and the connections between them.

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Robert Dingwall

This, of course, is exactly how universities used to work. In 18th century Scotland, students paid one fee to attend lectures, a second to attend associated discussions with the professor and a third to lodge in the professor’s house and receive personal tuition. All the fees, as I recall, went directly to the professor as their source of income. Adam Smith compared the results very favourably to the indolence of Oxford dons at the same period, who received various types of guaranteed income from their college and clerical appointments without having to deliver any teaching to their students.

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