Figures withheld as child slaps the hand that feeds

February 26, 1999

The government has announced that there are to be league tables for local authority social services as there are for schools and hospitals. The news came just days after the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service wrote to its correspondents in universities and colleges reprimanding them for leaks of applications data that resulted in The THES's applications league table published last week.

As a result of this naughtiness, UCAS told its institutions (which pay for its services) they would no longer be given everyone else's figures and perhaps not even their own. "I am investigating as a matter of urgency whether it would still be possible to let each institution have its own figures on a regular basis and will be in touch with you again shortly about that," wrote UCAS's chief executive, Tony Higgins.

Universities and colleges, it seems, are to be spared the discomfort of accountability by league tables, especially those published unofficially. Students, unlike parents or patients, will not be able to inform their choices by this means.

So what if in the process universities are denied automatic access to comparative information enabling them to see how they are doing compared with other institutions? If they do not get even their own figures during the application round how can they control recruiting? They might as well hand over admissions to the central body altogether. But this would mean giving up one of the crucial defining characteristics of British universities and one most envied on the Continent: the right to select their own students and set their own entry criteria.

UCAS was born out of the Universities and Polytechnics Central Councils for Admissions. The older sibling, UCCA, was set up some 35 years ago by the universities through the Committee of Vice-Chancellors to simplify applications. UCAS, formed in 1993, is a company limited by guarantee, wholly owned by institutions providing higher education. Five of its 14 directors and its chairman are appointed by the CVCP, one by the colleges; the rest are elected by the HEIs. It is their creature. But this week's letter suggests the child may yet consume its parents.

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