Leader: Size matters, status doesn't

September 23, 2005

The Open University's achievement in producing by far the most satisfied students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the new survey. The OU's triumph, which should do wonders for its recruiting and strengthen its hand in negotiations with the Government, is a timely reminder of the importance of part-time study and the potential of distance learning.

But it also raises questions about the survey's usefulness as a comparative tool for prospective undergraduates. OU students' expectations are inevitably different to those of their counterparts at conventional universities. The same applies, presumably, to those attending a former polytechnic rather than an Oxbridge college (although the latter's students have ensured that no such vulgar comparison can be made).

There are other reasons to treat the results with caution: for example, the most dissatisfied students will not be in the survey because they have dropped out. How are readers to reconcile Bolton's position in the top 15 for satisfaction with the projected loss of almost a third of its entrants? A university's average score also reflects the balance of its courses: if students of art and design, the creative arts and architecture are the least satisfied nationally (as we reported a fortnight ago), it is not surprising that the University of the Arts London struggles in any league table of results.

Perhaps the most striking conclusion from the survey is that size matters.

Although sixthformers flock to the big city universities, it is the smaller variety (with the exception of the OU) that keeps students happiest. None of the top 20 institutions in our table comes close to the 20,000-student mark that is now commonplace in UK higher education. It is not only the genuinely close-knit communities such as that at St Mary's College, Twickenham, but universities such as Loughborough, who trade on the "small and friendly" image. This survey shows it is more than a marketing ploy.

Many of the universities that appear to be serving their students most effectively are from the group that has come to be known as the "squeezed middle" because of their perceived vulnerability in an era of concentration on either research or widening participation. The message that students like a middle way and are not obsessed with the status of their university may not be one that ministers expected. But if choice is really the Government's watchword, it should take steps to ensure that the middle is not squeezed too hard.

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