Tories: students need greater transparency

November 2, 2007

A Conservative government would hold universities to account by publishing student dropout rates, staff contact hours and class sizes instead of relying on "clumsy monitoring institutions" such as the Quality Assurance Agency, writes Melanie Newman. The plan to "empower students" was due to be outlined by David Willetts, Conservative Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, in his first major higher education policy speech at Sheffield University's public services academy, due to take place after The Times Higher went to press.

Mr Willetts was also set to call on the Government to start its review of top-up fees now, rather than waiting until 2009, although the Conservatives have not yet decided whether they want to see the current £3,000 a year cap on fees increased or decreased.

Since taking office Mr Willetts has frequently raised questions over the quality of higher education and the student experience.

"Rather than relying on clumsy monitoring institutions like the QAA, we can hold universities to account by empowering students with information about their courses," he was expected to say.

Students are demanding such information with increasingly strident voices on student websites such as RateMyProf.com, WillISeeMyTutor.com, through demonstrations in person and via complaints to the press.

"Whatever their content, these campaigns underline a demand for new information about universities beyond what is available in the standard glossy marketing prospectuses. We need more transparency about what is really on offer to students," Mr Willetts was to say. While acknowledging that the National Student Survey is "a step in the right direction", the Conservative spokesman was to complain of "strong signs that this is yet another Gordon Brown target that can be gamed".

One vice-chancellor had told Mr Willetts that in order to make sure students are satisfied lecturers were told not to be too hard on them close to survey time.

Mr Willetts was to call for an official website giving students detailed information about universities and courses.

"A national student experience website would pull together searchable information on research ratings, dropout rates, library facilities and university estates."

Universities will also be urged to provide data not yet in the public domain, such as "information on contact hours and class sizes".

On the subject of top-up fees, he told The Times Higher that the Conservatives would abide by the cross-party agreement that a decision on the cap would not be made before 2010, but "that doesn't mean there should be a silence on higher education", he said. "We would like a pre-review to ensure that decision is taken properly."

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