Alarm at rating website

January 26, 2007

Universities seek legal counsel over student advice site that presents 'skewed' data. Claire Sanders writes

Named university departments have been described as "rubbish" and "shocking", with students advised to avoid them, in a website set up by academics.

The "Will I See my Tutor" site, intended to help students make informed choices for entry in 2007, is the work of two academics and an IT specialist.

The site uses staff-to-student ratios from the Higher Education Statistics Agency as the basis for evaluating departments. It is causing alarm, and some universities are seeking legal advice.

The trio behind the website responded to calls from The Times Higher but refused to give their full names or universities.

A group spokesman, who gave his name as Chris, said: "The essence of a quality education is exposure to educated minds. Many universities, in particular new universities, have high staff-to-student ratios, and students are insufficiently aware of these."

He said that the website would provide a "bulwark" against the "glossy, polished marketing" of many universities.

But he acknowledged that the site was in its "testing phase" and admitted that it should contain more caveats about the data.

The website makes clear that staff-to-student ratios supplied are for the university as a whole - not individual subjects - but it still offers damning judgments.

A nationwide search of law departments, for example, places the universities of Edge Hill and Luton (which became Bedfordshire University at the beginning of this academic year) at the bottom of the pile.

Students contemplating studying law at Bedfordshire are told: "This university is rated Shocking! as (sic) you should consider going somewhere else."

And those considering law at Edge Hill are told: "This university is rated Rubbish as it looks like there is not a chance in hell of ever seeing your lecturers outside of lectures because they may be horrendously over allocated."

The website does contain a warning that tells prospective students that the data may be skewed as the two universities have a high proportion of part-time students.

In fact, Edge Hill's law department is highly regarded; it has topped student satisfaction tables in the National Student Survey conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

John Cater, Edge Hill's chief executive, said: "There is no evidence for the allegation listed on the website - the National Student Survey rating is twice as good as that claimed, and students here commend their positive experience and the accessibility of staff."

Bedfordshire, which has high quality ratings from the Quality Assurance Agency for its teaching, said: "The information is so obviously wrong that we are seeking legal advice."

"Chris" told The Times Higher that he had previously worked in the US, where he said students were much better informed about their prospective universities.

"In America... there is a great deal of information available for students - right down to the level of individual department."

He said the UK was too slow in offering more information.

"When deciding on a university, students are making one of the biggest investment decisions of their lives," he said. "We are not concerned with the reputation of the universities but with informing students."

He added that the website would become more detailed over time, offering student comments and more focused data. "We want to show whether students are being taught by academic staff or postgraduates," he said.

The website is to be funded through advertising and possibly by introducing a nominal charge.


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