Doing quite well by all accounts

November 26, 1999

Next week, statistics will find some universities failing disadvantaged youngsters. But Diana Warwick argues that existing measures show that HE is performing well

The public scrutiny of universities and higher education colleges will intensify next week when the first comprehensive measures of their performance are published.

Universities' ability to attract students from the widest social backgrounds will be highlighted in the performance indicators to be issued by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The indicators will examine state schools' success at getting their pupils into universities and colleges, the numbers of young people from working-class households going to universities and the percentages in neighbourhoods from which few enter higher education. Also under scrutiny is how many students leave university without a qualification.

New information on United Kingdom research will also be provided next week. It will reveal the number of postdoctoral students who qualify at each university and the value of research grants and contracts obtained. These will be related to academic staff costs and research funding from funding councils.

These statistics are clear evidence that universities are prepared to stand up and be accountable. But they need to be looked at alongside a wealth of other "performance indicators" that are already public. These other data speak volumes about universities' excellent record in contributing to the health and wealth of the nation.

The tomes of evidence of high quality in teaching standards are testament to the good work in academic departments throughout higher education. Similarly the scrutiny of innovative research through two research assessment exercises has identified the world-class activity taking place.

Figures due out from a major study next week that examines longer term prospects show that graduates are carving out exciting career routes after completing higher education.

Universities perform very well in contributing to economic growth. Higher education provides one in 40 jobs in Scotland.

One of the new indicators focuses on the proportion of students who successfully complete their studies. We already know that the rates of completion of degrees at British universities are among the best in the world. I am confident that next week's figures will confirm that. And I am sure that many universities will do well in the performance indicators that relate to widening participation.

The new indicators will give universities the opportunity to examine closely their record on these issues against that of other similar institutions. They are a starting point from which universities can move on, learn from each other and demonstrate to funders, parents and the government that they offer value for money and are accountable.

Full details next week

Diana Warwick is chief executive

of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.

Should universities be measured by these new performance indicators?

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