Performance criteria slated

May 28, 1999

Vice-chancellors are concerned that government-sanctioned performance indicators will be used to construct league tables.

Universities and colleges in England and Wales were sent their individual performance indicators earlier this month for comment. The data show how well each institution performs in areas such as drop-out rates and widening participation of under-represented groups.

"It is clear that all publicly funded bodies have to produce performance indicators," said Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster.

"What worries me is an analysis that links institutes of a similar type together. Is it going to look as though there are rich, old institutions, red-brick universities and new ones? It would reinforce stereotypes in the minds of those who don't want to look any further.

"My prime concern is that performance indicators are not used as ammunition against institutions."

The master of Birkbeck College, Tim O'Shea, said: "I don't think you can stop people from constructing league tables, but they are unhelpful when you consider the diversity of the sector. For example, Birkbeck College and the Open University are often excluded, or only appear on one axis, showing that people have not got to grips with mature and part-time students."

Professor O'Shea also queried whether performance indicators produced valuable measures. "What are we interested in?" he asked. "The answer must be added value. For example, it might take access students longer to complete their degrees than A-level students, but that is a good thing."

He added, however, that the existence of league tables was not sufficient excuse to oppose performance indicators.

"It is reasonable to ask about performance indicators, so what we want are good performance indicators," he said.

Part-time students have been excluded from many of the data, such as student progression rates and learning outcomes. Dr Copland accepted the accuracy of the statistics for the University of Westminster but criticised the omission of part-time students. "I know it is difficult to measure part-timers, but they are not insignificant to us," he said.

The consultation has also excluded performance indicators relating to employment - stating that they are still under discussion. Vice-chancellors and funding council chiefs last month denounced the proposed indicator, based on the first destination survey of graduates, for its short-term perspective and for failing to acknowledge lifelong learning.

Responses to the consultation on performance indicators must arrive at the Higher Education Funding Council for England or the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales by June 28. The performance of all English and Welsh universities will be published later this year.

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