Leader: Paying customers will want better idea of prospects

May 9, 2003

League tables are always controversial in any branch of education, especially when there is a change of methodology. The inclusion in this week's rankings of new categories of graduate jobs will be no exception. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has declined to distinguish between different occupations, although the best-known annual survey of graduate employment has long used the wider job classifications on which the new system is based. You do not have to subscribe to the starkly utilitarian view of higher education apparently endorsed by education secretary Charles Clarke to believe that students have a right to know what their employment prospects might be before they choose a degree. In an era when a £400,000 lifetime salary premium is held out as a reasonable expectation for graduates, it is positively misleading to suggest that the likely financial rewards differ little between subjects and universities. It is not the case, as most official surveys imply, that in most subjects 90 per cent of students will go straight into responsible jobs or higher-level courses on graduation.

In some subjects, such as drama or fine art, it has always been acknowledged that a period of menial employment is a strong possibility while a reputation was established. But subjects such as media studies have traded on their high employment rates without distinguishing between the types of jobs taken by their graduates. The fact that first destinations are surveyed only six months after graduation means that they cannot be considered the last word in career mapping, but follow-up studies carried out at Warwick University's Institute for Employment Research showed a strong correlation with subsequent progression. As the cost of studying rises, there will be an even stronger case for graduate employment to be tracked for much longer periods. But, until such data become available, the information contained in this week's tables may be the best that is available.

If the destinations figures are an improvement, however, the beginning of the end of the teaching quality assessments is quite the opposite as far as the accuracy of league tables is concerned. Scores from the early rounds of assessment in England have been dropped from The Times tables this year, and rival publications are sure to follow suit before long. In computer science, for example, many of the judgements were made a decade ago when information technology was unrecognisable from today. This will cause few sleepless nights among the many opponents of league tables: the partial nature of the information will be one more piece of evidence to demonstrate the flawed nature of the exercise. However, league tables will continue to appear and to be used by prospective students - perhaps especially by those from non-traditional backgrounds who universities are keen to attract and who lack the networks of advice available in middle-class homes. Whatever the shortcomings of the subject review system, the ambivalence of universities over the provision of comparative information in such a key area for applicants does not reflect well on higher education. The promise to provide more detailed and reliable data with the new quality audits looks a long way from being delivered. Ministers, who now seem to regret agreeing to the abolition of the system without securing a replacement, pin their hopes on student satisfaction surveys. But, as we reported in March, there will be no more than a pilot this year, and this may be repeated 12 months later. The Australian surveys on which a new system might be modelled have suffered from low response rates, and in any case few students have experience of other universities to put their teaching in context. Ironically, the outcome may be just as unpopular with academics as the system that they succeeded in scrapping.

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