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Why am I doing this? The ‘return on learning’

Tue, 11/27/2018 - 09:55
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In almost every country around the world compulsory education stops at 18 (or lower) meaning that higher education, for most of us, is a choice. Those of us fortunate enough to have studied a higher education qualification have all had to sacrifice something in order to achieve what we want from it. 

For many of us this will start with the financial sacrifice of paying the fees for our education as well as paying for books, resources and other living costs associated with studying at this level. Beyond the financial we sacrifice time, effort and in some cases relationships, to get what we want out of our education. But what was it we are trying to get for this sacrifice, what do we gain for making them?

I studied to be an architect but, despite my HE qualifications, I’m not designing buildings. Does this mean that my higher education was a failure as I didn’t get that ‘return’ I expected for the sacrifices I made? If this was purely a financial investment, where a fixed amount is invested and then a fixed amount is returned to the investor, I would have lost out significantly. So why is it that I consider my HE experience anything but a failure and actually, that I got quite the return on my learning? 

Defining ROI of education

According to Forbes Magazine, everyone should get four things out of their HE studies: ‘subject specific knowledge’, ‘learning skills’.‘adulting [sic] skills’ and ‘personal relationships’..Surprisingly,  only the first two actually relate to study. The other two, ‘adulting [sic] skills’ and ‘personal relationships’ intrigued me as typically no institution offering HE will ever state as something that their students or graduates can expect from their learning . 

Despite me not being an architect I feel that I did achieve all four things from my time learning and that they have been beneficial to me. Therefore, according to Forbes, I ‘gained’ from my learning and got a really good ‘return’ on my learning. But are these the only measures that should be used to gauge what someone has gained and therefore had a successful return on learning? 

In the last 5-10 years, ‘learning gain’ has emerged as a concept in UK Higher Education. Broadly speaking, it’s an attempt to measure the improvement in knowledge, skills work readiness and personal development made by students during their time spent in higher education. 

The concept follows the decision to introduce tuition fees in 1998 as the mechanism to effectively fund UK higher education institutions. The argument was that as graduates get the benefits of their education, and the qualification, they should be the ones to pay. An unintended result of fees has been the ongoing efforts to try to define exactly what those benefits are because if this can be defined, students can be assured that the investment they are making in their higher education has certain returns and is therefore worth it. 

Measure outside the box

In 2015 the Office for Students (OfS) (then the Higher Education Funding Council for England) commissioned research into this concept to see if they could use learning gain to measure students return on learning. This research included 70 UK universities and colleges running 13 pilot projects involving over 30,000 students. Earlier this year these research projects have either reported or provided updates on how the research has progressed. 

So, what is being measured? What returns can we expect from our learning? Is HE worth the sacrifices? As you would expect, the purpose for higher education can’t be easily defined. Is it enabling students to develop critical thinking; enhance employability and get a job; to immerse students in a discipline; to foster a sense of moral purpose; and to educate students to become lifelong learners...? These aren’t easy to quantify. Therefore what you measure about learning gain depends on what you value and what you think higher education is for, making it debatable, contentious, and at times political. So the results are very inconclusive. 

Depending on your point of view, you may find that frustrating or uplifting. Frustrating that they can’t define what students should be getting for their sacrifices, or happy that they can’t define this and therefore (if you are of a cynical mindset) increase  fees based on the perceived monetary value of these returns. Personally I’m not surprised, and a little bit happy that the can admit that (at the moment) they can’t define this. 

What you want vs what you get

Going back to that Forbes article and the two areas that I highlighted which weren’t related to learning (‘adulting [sic] skills’ and ‘personal relationships’) I don’t think any institution could promise students that they could gain them from their learning experience. It’s up to each student if they get that experience and these aren’t part of the curriculum but part of the student’s personal journey.  Will they see this as a learning gain or a return on their learning? Often though, from anecdotal evidence, these are the benefits (the return) that graduates most reflect on when they look back on their higher education.

But it is only in hindsight that I think I am realising this. I went into my time in Higher Education expecting to get a certain something from it and I didn’t. However, I did get a wonderful experience that arose because of my learning, something that has benefited me in my life to date and continues to benefit me today. I am not advocating that those four areas should be the basis on which all HE should be judged, far from it. However, I believe there are huge benefits that accompany studying an HE qualification that will never be able to be measured, as the returns that students and graduates get will be personal to them. 

The reasons we undertake learning are personal to us and the sacrifices we make are similarly personal. So we shouldn’t wait or simply expect someone else to define what returns we should get from our learning. Instead the ‘returns’ we get should be personally defined and while they may not be what we expected it is up to us to make sure that we gain what we deserve from the investments we make in ourselves. 


I am the Higher Education Qualifications Manager for Pearson (responsible for the quality assurance (QA) of higher nationals programmes) and I am happy to answer any queries anyone might have about QA. I've worked in Higher Education quality assurance for over a decade and I am very familiar with academic rules, regulations, policies and procedures. I can be contacted through the hnq@pearson.com email address. 

I've worked for over ten years in higher education quality assurance at Universities, regulatory bodies and now with Pearson. At the start of my career, I was a student officer at a students' union, advocating for students and working to ensure that they had access to the best educational experiences possible. I have carried this on throughout my time in educational QA and I still have a passion to ensure that students deserve the best educational experiences possible. 

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