Leader: The democratic guide

August 18, 2006

Wikipedia, the free online encyclopaedia that allows users to write, edit and add to its articles, has often been accused of inaccuracy. In the past, it has offered entries describing footballer David Beckham as an 18th-century Chinese goalkeeper and claiming that a young Tony Blair had posters of Adolf Hitler on his wall - all thanks to the work of pranksters.

Despite these reservations, it has become the most visited reference site on the web in just five years. It retains the trust of both its loyal users and the countless volunteers who monitor accuracy and remove inaccurate information and "vandalism", usually within a matter of days.

As university marketing chiefs have acknowledged, the potential of Wikipedia and other user-run websites as a warts-and-all source of truly independent information - as well as a potential forum for aggrieved minorities to ruin institutions' own costly branding campaigns - is huge.

But as we enter the top-up fees era and expect further growth of market forces in higher education, media-savvy and web-literate students no longer seem content with the bland marketing speak of official prospectuses and advertising campaigns. With students and prospective students increasingly creating their own websites and using social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, it seems that a new democratic era of university accountability has arrived. It cannot be ignored.

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