Easy as ABC? Too late now

Data for applicants? The sector should have taken a leaf out of the newspaper publishing book, Philip Cowan laments

March 3, 2011

What information about universities should be presented to prospective students? But before we ask "what", there is a more fundamental question to be answered - "who". Who should decide on the nature of the information, and who should collect it?

The academy appears to have let this one slip away from it - just like everything else that has been decided in the past few months. As a result, it will be completely and miserably indentured to a couple of petulant and capricious masters: students and the government.

From 2012, the new fees regime will mean that prospective students will choose their university much more carefully and demand better information than that provided by glossy prospectuses.

Lord Browne of Madingley envisioned a single website that could include all the information applicants could need. But what should be included and, more fundamentally, who should do the measuring and presenting? In a typically thoughtful article on the issue of university rankings in The New Yorker last month, author Malcolm Gladwell concludes: "Who comes out on top, in any ranking system, is really about who is doing the ranking."

A joint consultation by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Universities UK and GuildHE, "Public Information about Higher Education: Consultation on Changes to Information Published by Institutions", is set to close next week. The proposed dataset has been heavily influenced by a survey of students about the information they would like to see. So far there has been little discussion emanating from the universities on the topic and few strong opinions expressed publicly.

Had we acted swiftly, the academy could have set the parameters itself, and insisted on paying for the gathering and dissemination of information. We would have been in control of the process.

Some may question the wisdom of universities carving the very stick with which they will be beaten. Why should we help create the system that could show us in a bad light and, in the worst-case scenario, signal our demise?

The answer, quite simply, is that the stick will certainly be carved and prepared for said beating, so better to have a hand in its making than let others do it.

Take, for example, the question of whether employment figures six months after graduation or graduates' average earnings after three years should be published. A university may well, in a particular year, have high unemployment figures among its graduates after six months, but the general trend could be for relatively high earnings after three years.

Publishing short-term employment figures could give a very false impression of the career prospects of the institution's graduates, which could result in a poor recruitment year, which would mean a bad hit on the university's income, which could start the whole ball rolling downhill.

So who should decide which set to publish? At the moment, it appears as if much of the data will come from external sources such as the National Student Survey; the universities will apparently be asked to provide information only on how students are assessed, a breakdown of learning and teaching methods, and statistics on student finance.

Shouldn't universities have vocally insisted on providing most of the data themselves, audited by a third party?

There is a good parallel in newspaper publishing. The independent body owned collectively by the publishers, ABC, gathers and publishes audited circulation figures. These are available on ABC's website, but are primarily for advertisers, who (just like our would-be students) want to know that their money is being spent effectively. Such openness is no more than enlightened self-interest.

In the same way, universities should be trusted to present figures that are trustworthy and relevant. After all, if the academy cannot be trusted to act out of enlightened self-interest, who can?

These are vital issues for universities; too important for others to decide. We will regret allowing them to do so.

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