The case for value for money in widening participations: have we been here before?
When it comes to evaluating the success of access and participation interventions the Office for Students (OfS, 2022a, n.p.) has stated an intention to challenge providers to ‘demonstrate value for money’. However, how this is defined and what this involves remains unclear. Nevertheless, a quick search of the literature provides some clues and suggests we may have been here before! Regarding the former, value for money (VfM) is often associated with the concept of cost-effectiveness (Fleming 2013, National Audit Office, n.d.). Turning to the latter, I vaguely recall writing an opinion piece on the subject of cost-effectiveness a few years ago (Raven, 2015a and 2015b). This was in response to the Office for Fair Access’ Strategic Plan (OFFA, 2015. OFFA was the OfS’s predecessor), which discussed the regulator’s intention to ‘challenge the sector on cost effectiveness.’ Yes, the language is remarkably similar. This opinion piece drew attention to a progamme I happened to be involved with and which was very clearly based upon the principles of cost-effectiveness.
Older readers may recall the HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) summer school programme (possibly with a some fondness and nostalgia, perhaps not!). By the way, HEFCE was a predecessor to OFFA and the OFS. In 2003-04, the programme secured match funding from the European Social Fund (ESF). This was a significant scheme that, during the period of funding, delivered 1,350 summer schools to some 41,000 young people (HEFCE, 2009, 3; Raven 2015a). However, ESF support required the universities and colleges delivering summer schools to ‘calculate the actual costs of these events, comprising staff and participant costs, as well as other costs, such as publicity, printing [and] stationary’ (HEFCE, 2003: 5, Raven 2015a, n.p.). They also had to ‘adopt the ESF’s methodology for calculating expenditure,’ which comprised ‘keeping staff timesheets and adopting a standard formula for calculating accommodation and classroom costs’ (Raven, 2015a, n.p.).
Whilst all of this proved very time consuming, the practitioners that I talked who had been involved in the programme remembered how ‘the process raised [their] awareness of the scale and range of inputs associated with delivering summer schools’ (Raven, 2015a, n.p.). The data generated also ‘enabled HEFCE to conduct a cost-based analysis of the scheme, including a consideration of the ‘average total cost of each summer school,’ as well as ‘the costs per participant and per participant day’ (HEFCE, 2009: 7; Raven, 2015a, n.p.). Whilst these insights were of value, the opinion piece drew presented the argument that other indirect, or opportunity costs should also have been considered (Phillips, 2009, Kaplan, 2014). These, it was suggested, could include ‘the costs incurred by school and college staff in supporting’ this outreach intervention and, potentially, ‘the costs sustained by participants, in terms of their time away from the classroom, as well as those incurred by their parents’ (Raven, 2015a). Cost-based analysis can, it was concluded, get complicated. The search for VfM is no different. Indeed, some argue that VfM is an even broader concept and an even more challenging one to prove. Jackson (2012, 2) has observed that ‘value for money does not need to be about monetising everything’. Corroborating this assessment, an OfS (2022b, n.p.) study of 2019 showed that students interpret the ‘value’ of a higher education in range of ways. For some, it is about employability, whilst others place a premium on learning, or the wider university experience. Some of the research on level 3 FE students I have been involved with (in the good company of Robin Webber-Jones, of this prestigious e-bulletin, and John Baldwin, another of this edition’s contributors), identify the same variations. Whilst an interesting concept, we perhaps need to be cautious about what VfM means and what demonstrating it might entail. However, I would be very interested to hear the views of readers on this subject.
Fleming. F. 2013. Evaluation methods for assessing Value for Money, Better Evaluation, https://www.betterevaluation.org/sites/default/files/Evaluating%20methods%20for%20assessing%20VfM%20-%20Farida%20Fleming.pdf. Higher Funding Council For England. 2003. ESF grants to support widening participation in HE. Proposals for 2003-06 (Bristol: HEFCE) http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/11144/1/02_50.pdf. Higher Funding Council for England.2009. Aimhigher summer schools. Analysis of provision and participation 2004 to 2008 (Bristol: HEFCE) http://www.hefce.ac.uk/data/Year/2009/Aimhigher,summer,schools,Analysis,of,provision,and,participation,2004,to,2008,/Title,93189,en.html. Jackson. P. 2012. Value for money and international development: deconstructing myths to promote a more constructive discussion. (France: the OECD Development Assistance Committee) http://www.oecd.org/development/effectiveness/49652541.pdfhttp://betterevaluation.org/evaluation-options/CostEffectivenessAnalysis. National Audit Office. (n.d.). Assessing value for money, https://www.nao.org.uk/successful-commissioning/general-principles/value-for-money/assessing-value-for-money/ Office for Fair Access. 2015. Strategic Plan, 2015-2020. (Bristol: OFFA). http://www.offa.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/OFFA-Strategic-Plan-2015-2020.pdf. Office for Students. 2022a. A new approach to fair access, participation and success, https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/annual-review-2019/a-new-approach-to-fair-access-participation-and-success/