Funding council officials were accused of gambling with the international reputation of British higher education this week by confirming plans to force all higher education institutions to "wash their dirty linen in public" in a new official university guide.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England published its final guidance this week on the quality and standards information that universities will have to publish on a new website to be launched next year.
The move will supply students, parents and employers with unprecedented levels of information, much of it previously unavailable or revealed only behind closed university doors.
For every subject area in every higher education institution, users of the new guide will be able to look up:
* The findings of a new national student satisfaction survey, giving recent graduates' views down to subject level
* The verdict reached by external examiners for all courses on the appropriateness of the degree standards
* Universities' internal quality review documents
* Data on student dropout rates, employability levels, average A-level scores, achievement levels by degree classification.
There were mixed reactions to the move. Kel Fidler, vice-chancellor of Northumbria University, said: "One huge problem that arises from the publication of university data in any form is that it has the potential to affect overseas recruitment.
"We may have the best system in the world, but in our attempt to prove it by forcing the publication of snapshot data, we will be contrasted by overseas students with those institutions in other countries who do not abuse themselves in this way but attract students with high levels of hype."
But Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and head of the Coalition of Modern Universities - which tend to have the higher dropout rates and lower levels of achievement that the guide will highlight - welcomed the plans.
Professor Driscoll said: "We would prefer to see students making their choice of university based on quality-assured data rather than out-of-date stereotypes. On many counts, post-92 universities will perform as well or better than many of their pre-92 counterparts."
Liz Beaty, director of teaching and learning at Hefce, said that while the website would offer unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability, she thought there was only limited prospect of "washing our dirty linen in public".
She said: "Failings highlighted by the new information requirements will be rare. We have no reason to expect lots of external examiners will not uphold standards. The feeling is that the quality of higher education is high and this is a good marketing opportunity."
Visitors to the website, which was set up to compensate for the abolition of universal teaching quality assessments last year, will be able to browse the information using the "shopping basket" approach. They will be able to select the subject areas they are interested in at their chosen universities and make comparisons between institutions according to their own criteria, in effect creating personalised mini-league tables.
Comprehensive data are not expected to be publicly available on the site until December 2004.