'Concentrate on overall experience, not jobs'

Too much emphasis on graduate employability in Key Information Sets could play into the hands of private for-profit providers at the expense of universities, a vice-chancellor has warned.

October 20, 2011

From autumn 2012, all institutions will be required to publish data on contact hours, course fees, living costs and average income of graduates, to help students choose where to study.

But Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University and chair of the Higher Education Public Information Steering Group, told a Westminster Education Forum event on 13 October that she feared students may focus too heavily on employment success statistics and pay little mind to information about the overall university experience.

"I am worried about an over-emphasis by students on employability," she said at the London conference, titled The Student as a Consumer? The Next Steps for Student Experience and Quality Assurance in Universities.

"What they want (for) £9,000 (tuition fees) is employability, but we offer a much richer experience. We have a hinterland that for-profit institutions cannot offer.

"If we are really clear about the range of opportunities we offer students and make it obvious, then we will only get stronger.

"We must not get sucked into thinking that we are providing some kind of production-line product."

She acknowledged that there was a place for institutions offering a stripped-down and cheaper product, but "those opportunities are already there".

Professor Beer added that concerns over contact hours were misleading because this measure was a blunt indicator of course quality.

"(The issue of) contact hours has turned into a proxy for everything that families are worried about," she said. "Students are pretty happy with contact hours, but they want them to be worth coming to.

"It's a little bit of a red herring, but it is completely reasonable that parents want to know how many there are."

Terry Hoad, president of the University and College Union, told the conference that the data on student satisfaction scores proposed for Key Information Sets were fundamentally flawed.

"There is not enough information to see three, five or seven years down the road if students value their degrees," he said.

"Education is a 'post-experience good'. You do not value it when you are getting it - you only know its value later on."

Mr Hoad also rejected the idea of "student as consumer". He said: "A consumer takes something and consumes it. Students engage in a process of shared learning."

jack.grove@tsleducation.com.

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