We know which universities are best from asking our teachers," a sixth-former at Guiseley School in Leeds told a THES reporter. But how do their teachers know?
In a mass higher education system anecdotal evidence is unreliable. Teachers' and former pupils' personal experience may add colour but does not provide enough information for sound choice, and choosing well is hugely important when, for example, students who drop out after the first term lose their grant entitlement, and credit transfer arrangments are still embryonic.
The information available is getting better. University annual reports - for which The THES and management consultants KPMG offer an annual prize, awarded this week to St Andrews - are now much more professionally produced. Nor is improvement confined to these reports. The whole range of universities' publications has been transformed.
But today's competitive climate means potential students and their advisors must be wary. University publications are recruiting material. Students with high grades on entry can help push the university up the league tables. Overseas students help the cash flow. That is why one of the most important criteria for the THES/KPMG annual report award is that the report should accurately reflect the institution. Some over-sell to an unacceptable degree.
It also means there is a real need for information on a standardised basis. This is the importance of the UCAS Guide to courses and, now the CD-ROM Studylink UK (Multimedia pii) which collates UCAS information on entry grades for each course with universities' own prospectus and promotional material. Both carry the kitemark of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals.
Given good quality information, students will be less dependent on partial information and help from those they know.
The report, published this week, of a survey of private secondary schools carried out by the Headmasters Conference and the Girls Schools Association, shows indirectly how important that help is. The report does not, pace some of the coverage, reveal hard evidence of anti-private education prejudice among admissions staff: a dozen possible instances out of 19,000 . What it does show is that if a university is contacted directly by a school they know a student may be accepted after all; an interview granted where it had been refused. It implies that these schools complain if offers are late, they query rejection of candidates they expect to do well, they agitate to get gap years for those who want them, they do not wait for clearing to get their students places after A levels.
These schools sell their places at a high price, Pounds 13,000 a year at Harrow for example. Parents paying that sort of money expect detailed attention to their children's university applications, and complain if it is not forthcoming. With parental ambition and attentive teachers it is small wonder university admissions continue to be so conspicuously skewed in favour of the private schools. The better publicly available information becomes and the more easily it is accessible, the better chance the great majority of pupils who attend state schools and colleges will have of competing.