Leader: Wide of the benchmark

October 8, 2004

The idea, posited in this column last week, that higher education's performance indicators were too familiar to stir passions could not have been more wrong. Although universities' actual performance attracted little comment, the recalculation of their benchmarks sparked more conspiracy theories than a dozen crop circles. Ministers were accused of rigging the figures and planning to fine universities that miss the new "targets".

Well-heeled parents were said to be buying up properties in low-participation postcodes to outwit the social engineers. The latter surely belongs in the category of urban myth, until the first hint of an example is produced. While parents know that a particular address will secure admission to a desirable state school, they would be extremely optimistic to believe that the same is true of higher education.

But the frenzy surrounding the benchmarks is just as misconceived. The new figures measure exactly the same thing as the old ones: an institution's intake in relation to the national average for each subject taking account of entry qualifications. They are not targets, let alone quotas, but statements of fact. The increases were simply the result of switching to the new Universities and Colleges Admissions Service tariff. It may not be the most appropriate measure for the most selective universities, which continue to use A-level grades rather than the tariff, but it has become the currency for all such statistics. Not only there is no mechanism for fining universities over the social composition of their intake, but the Higher Education Act specifically rules it out. The Office for Fair Access will be restricted to scrutinising institutions' recruitment activities and bursary programmes. The imminent arrival of Offa naturally concentrates minds and there may well be plenty to criticise, but it will have nothing to do with the changes in benchmarking.

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