higher ed,  History MA

Comparing the value of education

I've signed up to study the OU's MA in History starting in September. My reasons for this are twofold: it's good to be a student every now and then to remember what it's like to be a 'real' student; and I have this notion that part of what I do on this blog and in my digital scholarship book is to act like a contempary historian. I am trying to document, predict, analyse, and generally make-it-up-as-I-go-along this particular period of change for scholarly practice, because I feel that it's a significant one. But I don't have the real theoretical or methodological underpinning from a historical perspective to do this. 

I'm lucky, I get my fees paid as an employee of the University (rather like the mythical island where everyone makes a living taking in their neighbour's washing, maybe the OU can just populate its courses with its own staff). But completing the fee waiver form made me think about the (purely financial) cost of studying, and how it compared. Now, I believe education should be free, it's a general benefit to society to have people studying, so this isn't a political post about education funding, instead just looking at how it compares with other family spends.

As a leisure activity it is at the higher end, but doesn't come out too bad. My course is £3120 for the first part (which lasts a whopping 16 months), and then £1560 for the second which lasts 9 months. So that's a good couple of years of high quality activity (it actually comes to 2.5 with a small break in between and some pre-course work).

Here are some other leisure costs for comparison over the same period:

So it's definitely a luxury 'product' but not excessively so. It doesn't compete then on price as a luxury activity. What does it compete on? I'd suggest it has the following advantages:

  • Longevity – a post or undergrad degree will teach you techniques and you'll gain knowledge that will stay with you forever. On the first day of my Psychology degree back in 1986 they told us "long after you've forgotten all the stuff we teach you, you'll remember how to be a scientist". And they were right. You may retain memories of a good holiday or football season, but the longevity of good education is hard to beat.
  • Self-worth – I think an adventure holiday or growing a beautiful garden provide this too, but there is something about the objective value of a degree or masters qualification. You have achieved something that is broadly recognised and even for a Prof, that has a value to one's sense of self-worth. The sense of having been challenged and achieved something (much like running) gives a sense of purpose that is difficult to find elsewhere, outside of physical, sporting challenges.
  • Identity – being a football fan can add a lot to a sense of identity and people often label themselves in such terms, but so does acquiring a degree. I don't know if I'll label myself a historian afterwards, but it will definitely be a component.
  • Job prospects – this depends on the qualification, and increasingly is less significant than it used to be when everyone has a degree. It probably won't count much in my case, but who knows, it could lead to interesting career directions, research projects, etc. But certainly this is something holidays and footie tickets can't claim.
  • Enjoyment – I can't say how much it compares with a good family holiday or a great footie season, or a carefully cultivated garden. All of these provide enjoyment, but that is their principle sales pitch. I feel the joy you find in becoming part of an academic community, of learning interesting stuff for its own sake is something we don't make enough of in education.

In making this comparison though I think I've highlighted the problem in making education a market commodity. If you look at that list above of the virtues education offers, aside from job prospects, it is almost impossible to value them in monetary terms. How much is improved self worth in cash terms? To ask the question is to see it as ridiculous.





  • Techczech

    This is an interesting list but I think it only partially compares with real value judgements people make.
    As you say, when you’re buying a holiday or season tickets, you’re buying them for the reason of enjoyment (and I was shocked to read how much that would cost). And you already have a view of how much of your budget you spend on enjoyment. But a degree is not only not advertised as enjoyable nor is it structured as anything other than a job prospect building activity. You have to find all the other values in it yourself.
    Plus I think learning is not nearly as enjoyable as the current propaganda makes out. I am continually amazed at how little many people enjoy being a part of an academic community.
    And anyway I doubt, the enjoyment is enough. I’d say that there is no course that is potentially as enjoyable as a good MOOC. Yet, their attrition rates are huge (I have yet to even properly start one). Even the university attrition rates are quite high considering the costs. I would imagine that the season ticket or holiday trip attrition rates are rather low. So in that analogy, education would be more like joining the gym or buying DIY tools.
    We could also look at this from the perspective of knowledge/skill acquisition. Because, at a certain point, what do you need a course for? I spend a lot of time listening to history lectures (LSE podcasts, the Teaching Company, New Books in History) and reading history books (plus I have some prior training in the historiography). And I’m writing this while on holiday at the Dutch Summer School of Linguistics. I’m willing to spend money and time on both and I know exactly what I’m getting from it (all the items above except job prospects).
    But I’m pretty sure taking an OU MA course would drive me crazy. (Having designed and taught on courses like these.) It would seem like I could collate all the content and activity of learning on my own so most of the money would be spent on pretending that the OU content is worth more than publicly available content (which it isn’t – but neither is anything at Harvard or Berkeley) and that the degree is anything but an arbitrary piece of paper.
    Sure, I’d get interactions with lecturers and fellow students but not as much as I can get out there in the open world or could get during a week or two at a good summer school.
    So basically, unless I can justify the expenditure as a direct job prospect, I can’t see what value an MA in anything at the OU would have for me.
    Actually, there’s one value I can see and that is headspace. But a part-time course may not be as good for that as a full time attendance course. I did actually do something like this five years ago but I took a complete career study break so I was buying head space as well as content or degree (which I never even finished).
    Going back to the skills, learning, etc. and what it has to do with the value of education. I believe I’m doing as serious and rigorous study of many subjects now as I was when I was a student. But there’s no way to get meaningful credit for that.
    I’m vaguely excited by the badges idea which could provide small meaningful chunks of credit that might accumulate over time and mean something. But we’d have to build a lot of open mindedness into the system.
    For example, I’d seen some serious literary criticism done on Fanfiction forums – and I’d like to be able to go and award a badge to that person (as I did when I graded essays in literature). Maybe even without their asking me. And I’d like it if somebody else did it for my blog posts (some of them are over 5000 words). Maybe extend your idea of metajournal (which I love, by the way) into some kind of a metadegree.
    I am currently trying to design a MOOC-like course that would be both enjoyable, challenging, provide lots of learning from open resources, contribute resources back to the community and be worth paying for (a small amount but enough to make it sustainable).
    So the question your posts triggered in me is how can we go out and convince enough people to join the course, pay a bit of money, stick with it and continue the conversation. Given all the competing forces for their attention and money out there.
    Sorry, if this comment got a bit out of hand.

  • mweller

    That may qualify as longest comment ever on my blog! Thanks for all the points, I’ll address some of them.
    Enjoyment – maybe, but we do get a lot of leisure learners at the OU, who are studying precisely because they find it enjoyable. Retirees aren’t concerned with job prospects but a lot of them want to do that English Lit/Geology or whatever degree they’d always promised themselves but never had the time. It’s not always enjoyable while you’re doing it, because learning is hard, but often it is enjoyable in cumulation. Like running, any one run may not be enjoyable, but being a runner is.
    Content – this is of course the big debate we’ve been having since the internet arrived on the scene. I agree in some respects, you can be an autodidact and compose your own learning. But there is still value in having that content composed and placed within a meaningful framework. One of the problems for a learner is Meno’s paradox – I don’t know what I don’t know, so unguided learning may not lead me into the areas that would be beneficial. Plus the ‘learning is hard’ factor plays here too – it’s why dropout is so high on MOOCs, we have no formal commitment to them, so as soon as it gets tough other interests take sway. I would also argue that OU content is designed for learning, so it’s been through critical readers, editors, etc with this specific aim in mind.
    Accreditation – as you say the bit of paper is important, and maybe badges can do this. But although I do some informal learning around history, I still want the structure and the motivation a formal course provides, which is tied in with accreditation, but it’s more than just the bit of paper.
    I like MOOCs, and informal learning in general – I think they make us question what we are doing in higher education. In this post ages ago http://nogoodreason.typepad.co.uk/no_good_reason/2009/05/off-course.html I looked at the components of higher education, and what ties them together. But I don’t think they’re necessarily in competition with each other – see this post: http://nogoodreason.typepad.co.uk/no_good_reason/2011/01/higher-ed-room-for-disruption.html

  • Reedyreedles

    Firstly, thankfully Everton season tickets are a bit cheaper 🙂
    Secondly, the danger when you lay out the costs against other activities, is not one purely related to investing in a luxury.
    Would I rather;
    a) spend 2.5k on a course?
    b) Take my *family* on a nice holiday (currently just the 2 of us but when you have kids, spending such quality time is important) – might be a once in a lifetime holiday.
    c) continue to take my nephew to Everton games – again, about quality time.
    Each have ‘added value’ beyond their initial title.
    I’m sure most academics take work home with them, so there is more value placed on quality time – I think that family time might take preference, especially if you have a ‘stay-at-home’ partner who looks after kids. That money is not strictly *yours*, it’s the household income….

  • Techczech

    I agree with most your points Martin. In particular, I don’t think autodidacts are the way to go. The successful ones are far too rare and most of the ones I’ve come across are noticeably odd. But I did not mean to imply this scenario. I wasn’t even suggesting that people shouldn’t follow a course of study over some period of time or not participate in a community (although while professional communities are necessary, they can also have hugely detrimental effects on innovation – cf Kuhn). My complaint is that I don’t see why these courses of study and the communities should be locked away and cost so much money. I’ve long advocated Open Source curriculum and text book development (on http://researchity.net) as, I know, have you. In a way, what I’m proposing is the unbundling of assessment and individual support from curriculum and content.
    But you’re right, I was too harsh on OU courses. While not for me, I’m sure many people find them enjoyable (though, as you point our not at every point), rewarding and useful.

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