Data release ban threatens choice

A pledge to give students more help choosing a university is hitting a block, writes Simon Baker

September 8, 2011

The government's drive to provide more information for students is under question after it emerged that a number of institutions are still blocking private organisations from accessing data.

The issue was highlighted after the student information website bestCourse4me.com - which has the personal backing of universities and science minister David Willetts - was refused access to data from three universities and two specialist colleges.

It undermines a key pledge in the coalition's higher education White Paper, which name checks the site as the sort of organisation that should be able to easily access data in a bid to better inform prospective undergraduates.

Under current arrangements, a private organisation can ask for access to data held by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, but institutions can veto requests.

BestCourse4me said it had not been given access to data from London Metropolitan University, Liverpool Hope University and the University of Westminster after filing a recent request with Hesa.

The organisation, a not-for-profit body with a mission to better inform disadvantaged students, has been collecting information for a new version of its site being launched next week. The new site will have extra information about the qualifications held by successful applicants to universities.

Founder Steven Edwards - who has Mr Willetts on his steering committee - said he saw no good reason for access to be blocked and called for data to be more easily released to responsible operators.

However, some university administrators say that the use of such data should carry health warnings because of inaccuracies, small sample sizes and the specific circumstances of some institutions. A Liverpool Hope spokesman said it had a general agreement with Hesa not to release data to third parties as it was "often then presented out of context".

Two other institutions that effectively blocked bestCourse4me's request were music conservatoires the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music, which Mr Edwards accepted had more specific concerns.

Mike Milne-Picken, Royal Northern College of Music academic registrar, said the use of graduate salary data did not properly reflect the special circumstances of his institution's graduates, most of whom go into postgraduate study or do not have permanent employment.

Mr Milne-Picken also predicted that Hesa's Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education Institutions survey, which looks at salaries just six months after graduation, will see its "fitness for purpose...come under growing scrutiny".

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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