Information overload

The main parties' desire for students to be 'better informed' is dangerous, futile and immoral, warns Roger Brown

December 10, 2009

"The more information students have on courses and their outcomes, the more their choices will drive universities to improve." (Lord Mandelson, the First Minister, 20 October 2009)

"Instead of artificial targets, we want better informed choices by prospective students." (David Willetts MP, Shadow Universities Secretary, 20 October 2009)

More information for students seems to be common ground for the two main political parties, but the value of such information depends on what it covers and what it is used for. The provision of information that compares the quality of different subjects, courses and institutions is futile, wasteful, dangerous and immoral.

There can be little objection to students having more information about such things as likely teaching hours, typical group sizes, contact with tutors, return times for assignments and so on, as long as the costs of providing it are not disproportionate. But it is impossible to provide valid, reliable and accessible information about the comparative quality of different subjects, courses and institutions.

In order to do so, the courses would have to be comparable in aims, structure, content, learning outcomes and delivery, and involve comparable assessment methods, procedures and criteria. Assessment outcomes would need to be valid, reliable, consistent and fair, and students would need to have comparable starting attainments and aspirations.

But in a complex mass system with a huge number of students pursuing a wide range of programmes in a diverse range of settings, it is impossible for these conditions to be fulfilled. It would require a closely regulated national curriculum with national examiners.

Even if these conditions were met, it would also be necessary for the information to be customised to each student, and for students to use it in a rational fashion (otherwise institutions could not make a rational response). It follows that even to attempt to do so would be a waste of resources, especially when the sector faces severe cutbacks.

Such information would also be dangerous because it would reinforce the notion that the student is a consumer, that higher education is a commodity and that students are just as able to choose between different courses and institutions as they are between different models of iPod.

This is to misunderstand higher education and to reduce it. Its purpose is not to satisfy students but to change them. Equally, while their views should be taken into account, students are not, and cannot by definition be, the best judges of the value of a particular course, award or university - unless we take the view that anyone can be such a judge and that there is no need for specialists in teaching and learning.

There are more subtle dangers, too. There is always a risk that academic staff will not take quality assurance as seriously as they should. Reducing the choice of subject, course and institution to league tables where institutional popularity generally reflects levels of resourcing may distract staff in all institutions from the need to improve their teaching. We have here the same issue that underlies the futility argument: there is no way of comparing the processes or outcomes of different programmes in a scientific way.

Finally, the provision of comparative information is immoral because it shifts the risk of making a wrong choice, and therefore the responsibility for correcting it, from the provider to the student. This is where the analogy with consumer products finally breaks down.

Where it is clear to any consumer that a product is unsuitable, it is quite reasonable to put the onus on them to seek remedy and redress. But students are at best immature consumers who simply cannot be expected to know how suitable a course is until they have experienced it, and perhaps not even then. It is not only unreasonable but arguably immoral to put this responsibility on them when it should be our job to ensure that whatever course they choose, they will have every opportunity to obtain a worthwhile qualification. Let's not delude ourselves with the notion of informed student choice.

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