Tables for our times

December 3, 1999

Bahram Bekhradnia tells universities they must learn from the first national measures of their performance, published today

Today we are publishing performance indicators for 170 universities and colleges. They are the first measures of their kind to be published for higher education in this country. So why are we publishing them?

There are three main reasons: to give information to the public about the performance of universities and colleges; to give managers data to help them manage their institutions; and to ensure public accountability.

Most attention will undoubtedly focus on the indicators that reveal that 82 per cent of students achieve a qualification - which means that 18 per cent leave before completing their course. This "drop-out" rate of 18 per cent is lower than had previously been thought. In fact it is one of the lowest in the western world. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has recently published a comparative study of drop-out rates and, among industrialised nations, only Japan has a lower rate than the UK. Germany has drop-out rates 50 per cent higher than ours, the United States 100 per cent higher and France 150 per cent higher.

And this is despite a doubling of the number of students over the past decade. It is clear that our universities and colleges have succeeded in maintaining standards despite the increasing pressures they face.

The figures show how the likelihood of students dropping out of university varies, depending partly on the previous background of the student. Despite what is sometimes said (often by people who should know better), there is a clear relationship between students' previous educational experience and their performance at university. So, mature students (who, on average, have lower levels of formal education than younger students) are more likely to drop out. In addition there is an almost linear relationship between A-level points scored and drop-out rates (see below).

Let me be clear, though, that I am talking about a relative propensity to drop out. In absolute terms drop-out rates across all student groups remain low by international standards. There is no comfort in these figures for those who argue that more has meant worse and that we should scale back our ambitions for expanding opportunities in higher education.

One thing these indicators do is highlight the differences in performance between universities and colleges with apparently similar intakes of students. Some universities are excellent at enabling their students to succeed; others are less good. We are launching a programme to learn from the best, while working with the others to identify and remedy problems.

While some universities also have a good record in drawing students from poor and deprived backgrounds, others have very few such students. Nevertheless, school attainment and social background are closely linked. Until the disparity in performance between secondary schools in this country is tackled, universities with demanding entry requirements for students are bound to do badly when judged in terms of the proportions of disadvantaged students they admit. But they still need to be careful to ensure that their selection processes can spot high-ability students, no matter what kind of background they come from.

Previous attempts to produce performance indicators (and newspaper league tables) have been attacked for not comparing like with like. From the data we have supplied it is not possible to create a single crude league table identifying the "best" and the "worst" universities and colleges. Rather, each should be judged against their unique student and subject profile and against what they set out to do - their "mission".

On the other hand, there is no doubt that some are performing well and some badly, even after taking account of these factors. In future we will be extending these indicators and refining them - and we will all need to get used to reading them properly, to ensure that we learn the lessons they offer.

Bahram Bekhradnia is director of policy for the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

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