Difference engines

November 17, 2011

I welcome the involvement of Which? in the world of higher education data provision ("Intelligence agency", Letters, 3 November). It would be particularly helpful if Peter Vicary-Smith, the organisation's CEO, and his team were able to provide more meaningful indicators than the dreary statistics on "starting salaries" and the like proposed by the government.

As far as anyone can predict, those graduating from 2014 onwards will have very different working lives from the generations preceding them. They will need to "learn, unlearn and relearn" many times in their lives, change careers and countries on several occasions, and work alongside colleagues with different value systems, skills and goals.

Any meaningful contribution, therefore, to helping "students get the maximum long-term benefits from their investment of time, effort and money" will need to engage in serious longitudinal studies. As well as asking such questions as "How long did you stay in your first job?" (to balance the "starting salary" worry), Which? will need to find a way to assess the answers to broader and more qualitative questions, such as: "What was the most valuable part of university life?"; and "In what ways have you been surprised by what university did for you?"

Perhaps after many years of longitudinal work, Which? could ask this question (a paraphrase of a similar point made by Patrick McGhee, vice-chancellor of the University of East London): "Did university help you make a positive difference?"

Carl Gombrich, Programme director, Arts and Sciences (BASc), University College London

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