Read all about your course - if you really want to, that is

Students are being given more information, but many don't seek it out. Rebecca Attwood reports

August 5, 2010

Satisfaction scores, employment rates and the costs of university study are the areas of most interest to would-be students, according to a major study of their information needs.

But, despite a government drive to provide applicants with more detail about courses, many do not seek out this information, even though they think it would be useful, research for the Higher Education Funding Council for England has found.

Last autumn, the Labour government's framework for the future of higher education called for universities to publish a standard set of information about their courses in what was billed as a "food labelling"-style system.

Oakleigh Consulting and Staffordshire University surveyed nearly 2,000 students and organised interviews and focus groups to explore the idea for Hefce.

They found that students' views are considered most important by applicants. More than half think it would be "very useful" to know the proportion of students who are satisfied with the standard of teaching and their courses, and 44 per cent want to know how students rate the support and guidance they receive.

Student satisfaction with feedback on assessment matters to 42 per cent and their views of library facilities to 40 per cent.

Employment issues also score highly: 45 per cent want to know what proportion of students are in employment in the first year after graduating; 44 per cent which professional bodies recognise the courses; 41 per cent what proportion of students are employed in a full-time, professional or managerial job one year after graduating; and 35 per cent what the average salary for graduates is.

A total of 38 per cent want to know about the cost of halls of residence and the number of weekly hours of teaching contact they can expect to receive.

Although some universities are concerned about the idea of publishing contact hours, the researchers say it "features strongly" in the type of information students want.

The report, Understanding the Information Needs of Users of Public Information about Higher Education, recommends that the 16 items identified as the most useful by prospective students be published for all university courses in a standard format.

But the researchers say that a "surprisingly large" proportion of students who rated this information useful had not attempted to look for it, despite the fact that most of the data are already publicly available.

Some students had a much stronger appetite for information than others.

Those from groups that are already more likely to go to university - including those with high entry grades and females - are more likely to take advantage of the data.

The study identifies the gap between making information available and getting prospective students to use it in their decision-making.

If more information is published, there will need to be concerted efforts "to change the way in which students are guided towards and made aware of the importance and use of that information", the report says.

The study recommends that the information be published on university websites, in prospectuses and on the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service website.

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