Student Outcomes in Higher Education: a review of definitions, data & performance


In 2018, OBHE will focus on one of the most important higher education questions- how to define, report and evaluate student outcomes. Outcomes might encompass student experience, engagement and well-being, graduation rates, time to completion, skills acquisition, value for money, employment, salary, and alumni civic participation and life satisfaction. Our interest is certainly in the outcomes of online learning and TNE, our longstanding focus, but in the context of broader debate about global higher education performance.

Outcomes in higher education are challenging for two reasons. First, the definition problem. From the student perspective, higher education is neither product nor service. Learning, skills and individual growth, the objectives of higher study, are intangible and highly personalized. Quality and quantity are easily confused. Accusations of grade inflation, measuring value-added and attempts to capture achievement beyond conventional grades complicate any assumption that student outcomes are transparent and uncomplicated.

Student evaluations, satisfaction and engagement surveys, external quality assessment and institutional rankings all speak to important outcome dimensions but none captures the unknown whole. Notions of student happiness or positivity are the latest attempt to illuminate something new.

"Learning, skills and individual growth, the objectives of higher study, are intangible and highly personalized"


Questions of course and institutional productivity loom in the background. Has greater scale bred greater efficiency? Is it appropriate to challenge institutions to increase productivity while holding quality constant? Teaching and learning methods vary widely within and between institutions, driven by individual faculty members. The sheer number of variables at play make cause and effect very difficult to untangle, and reforms difficult to enact. As tuition fees become more common worldwide, a tendency to view higher education in terms of value for money will only grow.

The second challenge is that higher education is mission critical for social and economic well-being but there is a lack of consensus on what higher education is for and what counts as success. The very importance of higher education makes the question of student outcomes more pressing and more vexing. On the one hand, higher education is more prized and impactful for individuals and nations than ever; but on the other higher education is under siege as never before.

Higher education is accused both of being too open and too closed to different populations, as overly concerned with the career outcomes of graduates and not concerned enough. Once viewed as a meritocratic force, some accuse higher education of reinforcing inequities. The role of higher education, the argument goes, is to stand above contemporary pressures and inculcate timeless capabilities; while others assert that today’s workplace is changing fast- new technical skills, less secure employment, globalization, automation- and demand higher education respond.

"there is a lack of consensus on what higher education is for and what counts as success"


Higher education is engaged in a tricky balancing act- make access too restrictive and the economy is held back; widen participation too much and the value of a degree is diluted and education and employment fall out of alignment. Once the hallmark of quality, by itself a degree may no longer tell an employer much about the capabilities of the job candidate. The definition of a “graduate job” has never been broader. Mass higher education requires fresh thinking about the student experience to ensure broader admission strengthens rather than weakens student outcomes.

This conundrum is a challenge for OBHE to take on. Important questions to frame our investigations include:

  • Leadership. Have particular countries or institutions made much more progress than average on defining and reporting student outcomes? What accounts for major differences?
  • Models. Which definitions, metrics and arrangements characterize the most powerful and innovative approaches to student outcomes?
  • Utility. How are individuals, institutions, employers and governments using student outcomes data?
  • Modalities. To what extent are different forms of higher education, such as models of TNE and online learning, visible in outcomes data? How does the performance of difference modalities compare, and what accounts for the differences?


Throughout 2018, OBHE will publish regular commentaries on outcomes initiatives, data and issues. Too often student outcome debates are confined to national borders or particular sectors. We cannot hope to cover every interesting development or national scheme, but strive to shed new cross-border light on this most important topic.

Our coverage will be of interest to a wide range of institutional leaders responsible for course development, teaching and learning, student support, career services and employer partnerships.

Our 2018 Global Forum, held in partnership with i-graduate and the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) of Dubai, will also tackle the question of student outcomes. The Global Forum will be held on 4-5 November in Dubai. Please look out for event and agenda details in the coming weeks, and a call for papers.

In the next few weeks, we will also conclude our 2017 online learning theme with publication of three more country case studies (China, Ireland, Scotland), and a final report offering our take on the state-of-play in online higher education around the world.