Help with that tricky choice

August 18, 2000

Pupils have more performance tables than ever to aid them. What does this mean for universities? Claire Sanders reports

Last September, just as staff were returning for the new academic year and students were arriving on the doorstep, the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside found itself bottom of The Sunday Times league table.

"This had a devastating short-term impact," says press officer Jez Ashberry. "For two days I had worried parents - rather than students - on the phone. They were particularly concerned that, according to The Sunday Times's calculations, we had no points for teaching. It was almost as if we didn't do any."

Mr Ashberry and many others from new universities say league tables are heavily weighted against them. He argues that the impact on staff last September was "extremely demoralising". However, applications to Lincolnshire and Humberside have more than held up. Last year the university had the third biggest rise in applications of all universities, and this year is up on that by 2 per cent.

In the Higher Education Funding Council for England performance indicators - which were published for the first time last November and which compare universities against similar universities in a benchmarking system for four key indicators - Lincolnshire and Humberside performed better than its benchmark in 19 out of 20 categories. "It is hard to explain the benchmarking system simply," says Mr Ashberry. "So while we use the information internally, we do not use it in marketing. We avoid any reference to league tables or performance indicators."

Information now available to students is like a food chain. At the basic level comes the highly technical information from the funding council performance indicators, the research assessment exercise and the Quality Assurance Agency's teaching assessments. These, along with information from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, are processed by newspapers into league tables and included in some of the alternative student guides.

David Roberts, chief executive of the Higher Education Information Services Trust, says: "League tables matter to those at the top and the bottom. For the great unwashed in the middle they are not so important."

Only those at the top of the league tables, he says, will be able to charge higher fees should they be introduced. "I know of one university that went up ten places after employing someone just to look at the sort of returns that would be fed into a table - to make sure they would be of maximum advantage to the institution," he says.

Cambridge University is invariably top of the league tables, outshining Oxford in most categories. A spokesperson for Cambridge says: "We do not attach a huge amount of importance to league tables, very rarely using them in our marketing."

She added that although it would receive a huge amount of press attention if Cambridge did not come top of a newspaper league table, it would probably matter little in terms of applications or the university's overall standing - both nationally and internationally.

Nicky Old, head of the press office at Oxford, says: "We are obviously pleased to be among the top-ranking institutions. The top few positions do change from table to table and the margins between them tend to be very small."

Peter Dunn, press officer at Warwick University, says: "Even if you think league tables are the work of the devil, there are piles of parents out there who read them assiduously. If Warwick were not in the top ten you would hear howls of anguish from this office."

Last year the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals published a report by the Institute of Employment Studies titled Making the Right Choice: How Students Choose Universities and Colleges.

It surveyed 20,000 applicants for full-time undergraduate courses and found that while most found the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service handbook and open days the most useful sources of information, about 3 per cent used league tables.

Helen Connor, one of the authors of the report, says: "We started the survey a few years ago, so the impact of league tables and other guides had not been fully felt."

What the research did find was that it was parents who had been to university themselves who most referred to the league tables, as well as overseas students.

Research published by Hefce last October, called "Providing public information on the quality and standards of higher education courses", found that the most influential sources of information on quality and standards were the institutions themselves (in the form of open days and prospectuses), league tables and careers advisers. The research, involving discussion groups of school, sixth-form and further education college students and 1,000 responses to a postal survey, found few applicants going back to the original QAA reports for information.

Mr Dunn argues that league tables are now used extensively, particularly by overseas students. He also argues that their use has spread beyond the university-educated in social classes A and B. "We have local people whose families have no tradition of higher education coming to study with us part-time. I've found them to be very familiar with league tables," he says. Warwick devotes a section of its website to quotes from third parties - often newspaper editorial as a result of tables - as a result of the interest in them.

Rosemary Stamp, of Riley's Marketing, says: "We have a number of institutions coming to us worried about league tables and performance indicators. Some institutions are Fords and some Ferraris, and the tables only serve to underline that fact. Our advice has always been to be true to yourself: you cannot wish your way into being something else."

Despite this advice, Ms Stamp has seen an alarming trend in what she calls the "me too" approach.

For colleges of higher education, which do not appear in league tables, the "me too" approach is highly problematic. Patricia Ambrose, chief executive of the Standing Conference of Principals, says: "We believe that if colleges were included in tables we could hold our own. We would not form a long line at the end. At the moment we are invisible."

Scop is considering doing a shadowing exercise of THES tables to see exactly where its members would fit.

It is also talking with The Guardian, which publishes subject league tables rather than one overall one, on how it can include this sector. "In many subject areas, our colleges would top the tables and should be included," says Ms Ambrose. She also points out that 81 per cent of colleges outperformed their benchmark targets in Hefce performance indicators. "That is a valuable marketing tool," she says.

Paul Duffy, marketing officer at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College, says: "It does not worry us that we do not appear in any of the tables. Historically we were an art and design college, but have since broadened and are working towards university status. We would not want any one subject singled out."

Mantz Yorke, professor of higher education at Liverpool John Moores University, is a confirmed sceptic when it comes to league tables and performance indicators. "I've done some research on Hefce's performance indicators, looking at dropout rates in English universities of a reasonable size. I found that dropout rates can largely be accounted for by the maturity and class background of the student body - and bear very little relation to the quality of teaching at an institution. The only factor I haven't been able to weigh in is entry qualification, as it is too complicated to include those from non-standard backgrounds."

Hefce's performance indicators were published last November. New universities have been particularly angry that widespread criticism of dropout rates in certain universities was not accompanied by a corresponding understanding that it was precisely these universities that were trying to broaden access.

Those in London have also made representations to Hefce about an indicator that Hefce intends to include in indicators to be published this autumn.

It shows how universities perform in attracting students from neighbourhoods that have traditionally sent few young people into higher education. The universities say the indicator is not reliable for areas such as inner London, where rich and poor live side by side.

Bahram Bekhradnia, head of policy at Hefce, says the only significant concern has been that of new London universities on their benchmarks for the postcode-indicator of access. "We will be pointing out that there may be a 'London effect', but not making any changes at this stage," he says. "The indicators themselves are not in question."

A planning officer at a new London university says: "We would like to see the indicator significantly changed, and feel Hefce has been pushed into publishing something that is only partially accurate. Many new universities in London put a lot of time and effort into attracting disadvantaged students and when an indicator is used that does not reflect this, it is extremely demoralising."

But there are moves in some sectors to resist the ever-extending reach of indicators and tables. Alison Power is business manager at ECCTIS 2000, which provides a list of all UK courses. "We have been pressed by Hefce to include performance indicators in our information," says Ms Power.

"But we see ourselves as comprehensive and unbiased - and it is on that basis that institutions provide us with information. To include information from performance indicators would compromise us."

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