http:///www.niss.ac.uk/education/hefce/pub99/99_66.html Tools for improvement or a stick to beat universities with? Alison Goddard, Alan Thomson and Olga Wojtas report on the sector's first ever performance indicators
Publication today of the first performance indicators in higher education has revived the question "What are universities for?"
Lord Oxburgh, rector of Imperial College, London, said: "It is entirely appropriate for government to identify its priorities and for universities to respond, to the extent that they do not compromise their prime missions.
"It is not the job of universities to pursue precisely the policies of the government of the day. Most universities have a longer lifespan than most governments. We take the long-term view of education and research."
Stephen Marsden, director of institutions at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said: "Universities have the autonomy to decide what to do (about their relative performances). We consider the funding council's role to be providing support to identify those which are performing the best and how they are getting it right."
Higher education minister Baroness Blackstone said that the government expects action to remedy shortcomings identified by the indicators. She said that they were an invaluable tool, allowing the funding councils to identify trends and "steer" the sector.
"Information of this type has been collected and published for schools and further education colleges for some time. It is only right that, in order to retain its world-class reputation, higher education institutions should be equally in the spotlight," she said.
Baroness Blackstone made it clear that more needs to be done to widen access for disadvantaged people and to cut drop-out rates. She said: "High drop-out rates are a potential waste of talent and an inefficient use of taxpayers' money. I would expect institutions to look carefully at this to see what action they can take."
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals welcomed the publication."This information provides the tools to improve further future performance," said Diana Warwick, chief executive of the CVCP.
The indicators reveal a close correlation between a high funding council income for research and a low benchmark for widening participation among young full-time undergraduates. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge have the highest research income from the funding council, with benchmarks of 6.7 per cent and 6.5 per cent respectively for the proportion of students from less affluent neighbourhoods. At the other end of the scale, Newman College and Liverpool Hope receive about Pounds 10,000 in research funding from the funding councils and both have benchmarks of 14 per cent.
Experts are questioning the basis on which the indicators have been calculated.
Maggie Woodrow, author of From Elitism to Inclusion: Good Practice in Widening Access to Higher Education, criticised the calculation of the benchmark figure, which does not condemn universities with high entry qualifications and certain subject mixes for recruiting fewer students from lower socioeconomic groups.
"We should ask whether the funding councils should look at the benchmarks again: is an institution's subject range a legitimate excuse for keeping out the lower social classes? The sector benchmarks imply that it is OK for some universities to do more work (on social inclusion) than others," she said.
The efficiency indicator was welcomed by the Standing Conference of Principals. Patricia Ambrose, chief executive, said: "Colleges seem to have done well on the efficiency measure, which indicates the proportion of students who are likely to get a degree eventually. It wouldn't surprise me if the colleges' performance was because colleges are more personal and have a more student-centred approach."
Indicators should not be used to blame institutions for their apparent failures, according to the Association of University Teachers.
A spokeswoman said indicators should not be used to conduct a witch-hunt because they did not explain why some universities had not widened participation among poorer people nor improved drop-out rates.
"The union thinks it is crucial that the exercise is seen in terms of what can be learned through best practice and in terms of what extra support institutions need. It should not be an excuse for finger pointing and penalising institutions," she said.
This point was echoed by Peter Fidler, vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland. He said: "We are concerned about how the press will deal with drop-out rates. We want to widen access and opportunities (for under-represented groups) but at the same time, our quality and standards have to remain strong - it is the reputation of the university that we rely on to raise aspirations."
Indicators have helped to dispel the myth that universities are ivory towers and will also help protect institutional autonomy, according to lecturers' union Natfhe.
The union's universities chief Tom Wilson said that it was particularly useful to see the modern university sector, where most Natfhe members work,being recognised in official tables for its achievements in opening higher education to disadvantaged people.
Mr Wilson said: "These indicators are a way of demonstrating some of the major achievements of the sector and we welcome them. However, people must understand their limitations and use them as a starting point for discussions and the beginning of a learning exercise.
"Contrary to what some people think, I believe that the performance indicators are the only way that sectoral autonomy can survive. It is by being transparent about and accountable for what they are doing that universities can avoid government intervention." Mr Wilson had some
criticisms of the indicators' broad nature. He said that, for example, Natfhe had wanted to see them measuring the ethnic mix of staff and students at institutions.
The union is also concerned about the high drop-out indicators for the modern universities. These tend to be the institutions that expanded the fastest and take the highest proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds. He said that the answer was to have more face-to-face teaching and support for students, which meant greater investment by government.
A spokesman for the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals said:
"These results look good for Scotland. Scotland has done well in increasing participation rates for young people. These are the first official measurements of how that has worked, and the results look pretty solid for Scotland's institutions.
He added: "They also offer some guidance for issues where we can do better yet, and will provide a baseline for going forward."