You pays your money, you makes your choice...

November 14, 2003

... and as parents play a greater role in their children's higher education decisions, league tables are likely to be their key guide. Shola Adenekan and Mandy Garner report.

Parents are still struggling to get information about the basics of higher education despite a huge increase in interest since the introduction of fees, says Jane Ratchford of Manchester University and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology's careers service.

And she should know. She is director of University Options, a pioneering resource set up to give parents, students and teachers impartial information about higher education. It has been running for two and a half years and the most popular part of its website is university league tables.

The most accessed page shows general league tables and the next most popular displays league tables in the parents' section of the site.

Ratchford, whose careers service recently topped an employers' league table, says there has been a marked increase in the number of parents visiting the site since it started. She says parents play a vital part in their offspring's decision to go into higher education. "Parents think not in terms of joining an academic collegiate structure, but more in terms of buying a product from a supermarket. They want the best value for money and they search in the same way, and the easiest way to do this is via league tables."

Many in higher education envisage a bigger role for the league-table industry in future, possibly along the lines of the US experience, as students and their parents become increasingly worried about debt and students' ability to pay it off after graduation. Arnauld Chevalier, a research associate at the Centre for the Economics of Education at the London School of Economics and an expert on the cost-effectiveness of higher education, says there will be calls for US-style rankings, which have become a highly lucrative and influential business over there. US News & World Report , one of the top surveys, sells hundreds of thousands of copies of its annual report, which works on a complicated formula that subjectively weights factors such as the proportion of professors with the highest degrees in their subjects against others, including average faculty salary, adjusted for regional living expenses.

But the US system has many critics. Bruce Hunter, chief college counsellor at Rowland Hall St Mark's, a private high school in Salt Lake City, Utah, says he stands in front of his students every autumn and tears the ranking pages from his US News guidebook. "Pretentious, money-grabbing nonsense," he says of league-table publications, adding that they serve only to "harden public understanding of the identity of the 'best' colleges and universities, based more on endowment, resources and reputation" than on quality.

In the UK, many academics would sympathise with this view. Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at the University of Warwick, is an ardent critic of league tables. "It is psychologically difficult to be reminded that you work in a below-average place. You do not find that in any other walk of life. Every university in Britain does well enough. It is all sadly reminiscent of Stalinist Russia."

However, others note that in the absence of other comparative information about universities, such data will be sought anyway by parents and students, particularly those who don't have a family tradition of going into higher education.

"The more important point is that some parents, who have usually attended university themselves, possess more relevant knowledge than others," says Stephen Machin of the LSE.

But most agree that demand for tables will rise and that employability, the subject of much debate, will probably figure more prominently. The University Options website offers graduate profiles so parents can see the kind of jobs and salaries that students doing certain courses in certain universities can expect. Ratchford says that, despite initiatives such as Aim Higher, which has a section for parents that includes a facility for calculating the total price of higher education such as the cost of living in certain areas, there is still relatively little information specifically dedicated to parents' needs. For instance, she is surprised by how little data careers teachers have about graduate employability, although she admits this is partly because they have few resources and because the graduate employment market is a fast-changing one. She adds, though, that universities' records on information-giving are often variable. "In an age when we need more information, there is a danger that we are not delivering enough."

The careers service has changed dramatically in the past five years with the introduction of the widening-participation agenda, and there is pressure, particularly from parents, on advisers to provide a huge amount of data. Careers advisers often work hand in hand with alumni services and widening-participation projects. Methodologies for collecting data have also changed, which adds to the confusion because it makes it difficult to compare information.

"There is more pressure on careers services for information but resources have not increased," says Andrew Whitmore, assistant director of the Manchester-Umist careers service.

Miriam David, professor of education at Keele University, says that, despite this increased interest from parents - which she says started 25 years ago with the opening up of the higher education system - there is little research being taken into this area. She has been involved in looking at parents' impact on student choices at further education colleges and in sixth forms. She says: "Few studies have been undertaken, although there is a lot of anecdotal evidence from institutions about how the whole process of going to university is changing in that now many institutions have open days to which young people and their parents come."

David will raise the issues at a conference on widening access to higher education at the Social Market Foundation in early December at which the key speaker will be Stephen Schwartz, the government's fair admissions tsar.

There is little doubt among those in the careers service that this is a huge area and that they need to come up with much more detailed information for parents, particularly on employability. The First Destinations Survey covers only the first six months after graduation. Whitmore says: "It is frustrating for universities because people could be working in McDonald's and the next day get a big break." Nottingham Trent has done a longer-term survey, and Manchester is now looking at doing a five-year survey.

Ratchford warns that whatever the complexities of working out how to measure employability, universities should be wary when using such statistics to promote their courses in case they open themselves up to litigation. She says there has been a "marked increase" in the number of angry parents who are unhappy that they have paid for their child to go to university and they have not had the expected return on their investment.

"Some genuinely believe that it is the university's job to find their child a good job."

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