Flagship website faces further delay

August 6, 2004

Ministers said it would be the essential tool to help would-be students find the right university course amid the confusion of peer pressure, parent power, prejudice and the inflated claims of glossy prospectuses.

But this week the launch of the promised flagship website for prospective degree applicants appeared to be heading for its second postponement - following claims by university officials that the information it is due to publish bears no resemblance to their own figures.

The teaching quality information (TQI) website aims to offer a university-by-university, subject-by-subject breakdown of everything an applicant might need to know, from student dropout rates to job prospects.

It even plans to reveal previously top-secret details of internal audit reviews and external examiners' reports.

But one planning chief at a Southern university said: "It's been a bit of a disaster. First, we couldn't read the data we were sent to approve, then, it was totally unfathomable and, finally, when we were able to work out what was what, it was all wrong."

Kel Fidler, vice-chancellor of Northumbria University, who has strong concerns about the marketing implications of washing the sector's dirty linen in public through the website, said: "One can see the lawyers rubbing their hands waiting for business."

Plans for the TQI site arose from the 2001 Cooke report on the information universities should make public after the Government decided to abolish the universal inspection of teaching quality.

"Final guidance" to universities on plans released by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in October 2003 said the site would be launched in June 2004, with the complete information available by December 2004.

But June came and went. Since then, the site ( www.tqi.ac.uk ) has hosted a simple welcome page, promising visitors access to "a preliminary set of data" from August 2004. But anyone keying in the web address at the time The Times Higher went to press was redirected to the home page of the Higher Education Research Opportunities website, the web portal hosting the TQI site.

Last month, weeks before the planned and apparently postponed August launch, senior university planning officers were still raising concerns about the data Hero was planning to post, even though it was based on information universities have been routinely handing to the Higher Education Statistics Agency for years.

Wendy Laver, planning officer at Lincoln University, said she had tried, unsuccessfully, to reconcile the tables provided with her own figures.

Ros McDonnell of Manchester University said the figures she had been asked to sign off on dropout rates were "particularly worrying". She said data for another table "both raw and rounded" were "just plain wrong".

This week, none of the planning officers who had contributed to the discussion was available for comment. A spokesman for Hefce said: "This autumn, the TQI website will publish data that institutions provided to Hesa in autumn 2003.

"Hero recently issued institutions with a Hefce-approved revised timetable that allows higher education ample time to preview the data. We believe the concerns are based on the previous timetable, which is now out of date."

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