A student's right to know

Institutions and sector agencies should be more open with data to enable informed choices, says Paul Marshall

February 18, 2010

Providing transparent and accurate information about universities and clarity about the nature of what they offer should be a priority in delivering an excellent student experience. Students deserve clear and accessible information to enable them to understand the choices available. Prospective students deserve more than glossy advertising prospectuses to inform crucial decisions about which university to attend and which course to study. Providing better information will improve retention, as students will be clearer on what to expect from university.

The current Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance led by Lord Browne, as a first stage of its inquiries, has rightly asked the higher education sector for evidence of how it has enhanced the student experience. Although universities are successfully doing this through ambitious investment in modern facilities, responsive support services and world-leading staff, there has not been an adequate focus on providing accurate and accessible information about the nature of the academic experience on offer.

The 1994 Group has been campaigning for three years to improve the transparency and accuracy of information available. We are cautious as to the quality of information in the public domain and do not believe that data are being made available to students in an accessible way. It is time for universities and Government to work together to provide the clear and reliable information that students have a right to see.

The National Student Survey (NSS) has been a considerable success and is one of the few public national indicators focused on assessing the student experience. It must be supported by the sector and Government, and its findings widely communicated. However, there is a need for a wider range of clear information about the nature of the specific student experience being offered by each university, along with the postgraduate and international student experience.

Data on graduate employment and earnings must be enhanced to ensure that students understand to the best degree possible the prospects they are gaining from their investment in higher education. The Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey is useful, but taken at just six months following graduation it does not form an accurate reflection on its own of the overall impact of university on graduates. As Lord Sainsbury has recommended, more should be done to extend the Longitudinal Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey, which focuses on people three and a half years after graduation.

Better use should be made of existing sources of information. Sector agencies gather data sets on an annual basis. A bank of high-level institutional data should be made available to allow prospective students to differentiate between various types of institutions in an increasingly diverse sector.

There are positive signs on the horizon, with a number of initiatives being developed to improve the information available. David Willetts, the Shadow Universities Secretary, is working with Microsoft to create a national student information website that will be launched shortly. It will allow students to give their views of teaching standards and the quality of feedback on their work, and will provide detailed information on graduate employment rates and salary levels. The 1994 Group has begun work on a Jisc-funded project aimed at enhancing applicants' understanding of university experiences, which will result in a high-quality interactive online resource for prospective and current international and domestic students and their parents.

Some universities, including Lancaster, have introduced student-university contracts that give students guarantees about the academic experience they will receive, such as the number of teaching hours they can expect and limits on class sizes.

The Browne review and the Government should encourage universities and sector agencies to be more open with the data they hold and support the progress being made to make information more accurate, accessible and transparent. Good universities should have nothing to hide. Students deserve to know.

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