I recently spent an enthralling Sunday morning renewing my car insurance via a price-comparison website. In the past, I'd always performed the insurance-renewal ritual via a series of telephone calls in which I'd asked patient and blameless call-centre workers whether the companies employing them were having a laugh. While this involved some cheery conversations and usually resulted in a decent outcome, it did take rather a long time.
The website I used allowed me to be precise in my search. But the process took as long as ever. I found myself having to compare seemingly similar products that were actually quite different. This was because, in the key information provided, critical data were missing. For instance, the website identified whether a product included legal cover and at what cost, but not the level of cover provided. In most cases the absent details could be obtained only by making a phone call ...
Nonetheless, car insurance is fairly straightforward; and although we all wince at its cost, policies are far cheaper, simpler and easier to compare than the complexity of UK university courses. As we know, the idea that prospective undergraduates should be able to make informed comparisons between programmes and institutions is central to the government's vision of market-orientated higher education. But its plans for the provision of vital data, via Key Information Sets, are inadequate and likely to be misleading and counterproductive.
The higher education White Paper explicitly rules out government investment in the provision of advice to applicants. Instead, it references price-comparison websites in a "long-term strategy" to furnish "relevant student data" to third parties, who will in turn convert this into "meaningful information" for would-be undergraduates. The KIS - which every university will be required to complete for each course - will form the core data.
KIS are obviously problematic. Some information - for example, that relating to student destinations, graduate-level employment and average salaries - is notoriously difficult to gather and verify. (In any case, what about the range of opportunities and job satisfaction?) Other information could be "game-able". The National Student Survey is a good thing, but different approaches by institutions to collecting responses can affect final ratings. Vital details will be missing. If applicants use KIS data "neat", they will know whether a university provides fee-waivers, bursaries and scholarships, but not how much is given or to whom. They will have a ballpark sense of how much university accommodation costs, but not what proportion of undergraduates live in halls. They will learn whether undergraduates view their students' union positively, but not why. Most seriously, given how fundamental this is both to the idea of the university and to the government's conception of how competition between institutions will raise standards, they will be told about teaching and learning contact-time, but not about group-size and the nature of the contact.
We are all aware that students in some institutions worry about the lack of academic work. Last month, I learned that first-year undergraduates in a subject related to my own at a highly reputable university are required to complete less than 10 per cent of the written work my students have to submit. This vast disparity could be heavily disguised under the KIS within "scheduled learning and teaching activities".
But what really worries me, is how the data will be "innovatively presented" by the third-party providers whom the government envisages will advise applicants. Comparing universities and courses is already really difficult. Unless students are lucky enough to be supported by excellent careers advisers, they struggle to make sense of substantially incomparable information regarding course content, teaching, learning, costs and support. The problem has arguably been exacerbated by newspaper league tables that seek to distinguish themselves by weighting data differently, or including additional delineators - sometimes of comical spuriousness. The impossibility of comparing like with like will only get worse under the new arrangements. Try, for example, comparing the fee-waiver, bursary and scholarship packages of Oxford and Cambridge. Both are, I believe, strong and broadly similar. But they look very different.
The result will surely be deterioration in an already problematic reality. As it is, students flee in the face of a plethora of information they struggle to understand, instead choosing on the basis of word of mouth. Consider two excellent Midlands universities. These seem to me essentially indistinguishable on substantive grounds. Yet one receives many more undergraduate applications than the other because it has a better "reputation". So far as I can tell, this has very little to do with anything that should matter to an undergraduate.
It is precisely the students we are keenest to encourage - those from widening-participation backgrounds - who will be most disadvantaged by unregulated information overload. Bafflement, together with debt-aversion, is likely to reinforce their tendency to "go local" - and this in turn could seriously restrict their choices and opportunities.