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June 29, 2007

Foreign students need a site that lets them evaluate their experience, British Council is told. Olga Wojtas reports

Academics could see their departments named and shamed by their students on a new international ratings website under a proposal to the British Council.

A recommendation to set up the site, which would allow all international students to describe their experience at UK universities just like consumers rate hotels or holidays, is made in a report to the British Council this week by Greg Philo, research director of the Glasgow University Media Unit.

The idea has alarmed the lecturers' union. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "People are far more likely to tell friends and colleagues about bad experiences than good ones. We would have concerns about the motives of some people posting on a site like this.

Online gossip might seem harmless enough. However, it can lead to online bullying and malicious rumours spreading across campus."

Professor Philo's report focuses on the 50,000 Chinese students studying in the UK. It found that when they choose a course they value word of mouth over sources of information such as advertising and league tables.

"You can't beat people's direct speech in terms of getting people to trust what they say," he said.

The research is based on the views of 40 interviewees in China and 120 Chinese students in the UK and suggests that a website would help shake up the traditional university hierarchies.

Some students complained about their supervisors and felt they could be better looked after in mid-ranking universities compared with elite universities, where top researchers were too busy for them. Some 69 per cent thought they had been recruited as "cash cows" but generally accepted this. A similar proportion said their course was good value for money.

Almost two thirds said their experience in the UK was "good" or "very good", while only 29 per cent rated their education in China as "good" or "very good".

"They found higher education very creative and very original. It was a very cherished experience," said Professor Philo.

Beatrice Merrick, director of services and research at UKCOSA, the council for international education, said: "Two students on the same course may have completely different experiences. If the disgruntled one posts comments, there's no balancing view. Students should look at all possible sources, and word of mouth is valuable, but there's a risk of disproportionately negative comments appearing."

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

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