By Cam Donaldson

The value of university expertise seems to be on the rise again as we “follow the science”, and armies of nursing, medical and allied health students and staff have joined the fight against coronavirus. But, as with many other sectors of the economy, universities are set to struggle financially in a post-Covid-19 world.

The stakes will be even higher than before the virus struck and we will inevitably return to questions of “value” in higher education, about which there were active discussions pre-Covid-19. Then the arguments were divisive, as government thinking seemed to be focusing on a narrow conception of sector productivity. High value was attached to courses producing the biggest earners, and, although now hard to believe, influential reviews of the sector seemed to be following along, encouraging such a crude “human capital” approach to determining value in education.

Pre-virus, when much of this piece was conceived, my aim was to defend the so-called low-value against the high. Now, I would contend the case is even stronger.

Such a human capital approach is one in which we see value resulting from investing in people as individual units of production, much like investing in machinery and technology. The resulting productivity indicator is what education leads to in terms of salary attainment.

Is this really how we view the value of education, whereby a “low-value” degree is one that fails to produce sufficient “return on investment” in terms of such earnings?

Use of earnings as a measure of value falls into the same trap, challenged by several leading scholars, as using gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of the wellbeing of a nation.

One is reminded here of the joke about economists knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. In fact, economists are well aware of the difference between value and price (or wages, as representative of the “price” of labour).

An example used to illustrate this in teaching economics is water versus diamonds; the latter of which is priced at a much higher level than the former. However, this does not mean that diamonds have greater value than water; the higher price for diamonds merely being due to the interaction between supply and demand. Diamonds are scarce and, so, even a small amount of demand will generate high prices. Water – at least here in Scotland – is not scarce, which means demand can be met at low prices. But the value generated by cheap water, over and above its price, is huge compared to that of diamonds.

The same might apply to so-called low-value degrees – say, nursing – vis-à-vis higher-value degrees in medicine.

There are particular reasons why the price (or wage) for nurses is less than that for medical doctors, but surely that does not diminish either their value to society nor, therefore, the value of their degrees? The same logic applies to other degrees, such as social work or for allied health professions, which may not pay as much as law or finance.

Where does the focus on earnings leave us in terms of lifelong learning? Are we to disinvest from educating older people because their projected lifetime earnings will (inevitably) be less than those of lesser years?

Many years ago, my own research area, health economics, abandoned such human-capital approaches to valuing the benefits of healthcare because of the negative connotations it had in terms of giving lower priority for treatment for older people and even different racial groups.

What of gender too? Are we saying lower-earning degree courses dominated by women – and there are many out there – are of lesser value?

To some extent we focus on such measures of value in education because the data are there, falling into the trap of valuing what we can measure as opposed to measuring what we value. The latter poses challenges, but those with influence such as policymakers and universities themselves should not fall into lazy applications of lazy thinking.

Finishing with some questions might point us in other more productive directions.

What do we want – diamonds or water? Likely, it is a lot of the latter, but actually a wee bit of the other too.

Why measure value in such simplistic and reductionist monetary terms? One of the many things laid bare by Covid-19 is that workers are not defined by what they earn – even if they should actually be paid more.

What of development goals (SDGs), issued by the United Nations in 2015

and applying to all countries? A reasoned portfolio approach, of achievement across the SDGs, might be more challenging in terms of measurement and comparison, but rather that than chasing a will o’ the wisp that earnings somehow represent value in education.

Who knows, we might then end up with someone with a degree in classics running the country and guiding us through the coronavirus pandemic.

Cam Donaldson is a renowned health economist, Yunus Chair and pro-vice-Chancellor Research at Glasgow Caledonian University