With too much brand in their diet, applicants must be fed more facts

Publish data to show reality of study and prospects, says quality chief. Rebecca Attwood reports

September 23, 2010

Publishing contact hours and graduate earnings data would allow applicants to see past branding and reputation to gain a more realistic picture of the university experience.

The argument was made by Anthony McClaran, the chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, as universities prepare for the prospect of a formal judgment from the watchdog on the quality of information they publish about their courses.

Speaking at the Quality Matters for Students conference last week, Mr McClaran said the move would "ratchet up" the significance of public information.

While the plan was "not unproblematic", publishing a standard set of data could allow universities to challenge the dominance of newspaper league tables as well as unregulated information and comment on social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Mr McClaran said the "extraordinary success" of league tables was a symptom of a deficit of readily comparable information about higher education.

"As someone who has worked in universities, I do fully understand all the reasons why comparisons are often difficult and sometimes potentially misleading, but I think, perhaps, as a sector we need to recognise people's legitimate appetite for wishing to see information in a comparable form," he said.

If the sector got the model right, public information would allow applicants to look behind "brand value" and over-simplistic hierarchical categorisations of universities to see "the real impact, for instance, on...likely future earnings" of a particular course.

Mr McClaran said universities had sometimes shown "a rather dismissive attitude" towards requests from students to publish details of the contact hours they could expect.

"Institutions rightly say that you can't reduce the learning experience to contact hours. No you can't - but to me that doesn't mean there is any reason you shouldn't know what the contact hours are. They are not the whole picture, but why shouldn't the applicant have the right to know the tangible ways in which the learning experience is going to be delivered at particular institutions?" he asked.

But Elaine Thomas, the vice-chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts, urged "proportionality".

While she agreed that information for applicants about course content was important, the requirements placed on universities to publish more data must be "reasonable".

Amid budget cuts, universities were trying to reduce administrative costs to protect teaching posts, Professor Thomas said. However, she said the "burden" of providing extra data and ensuring that they are reliable would fall on administrative staff.

The standard set of data to be published by universities has not yet been agreed, but recent research indicates that applicants would like it to include course-level information on contact hours and average graduate salaries.

Last week, the QAA presented the proposed new institutional audit method for England and Northern Ireland, to be introduced in 2011-12, to the Quality in Higher Education Group of university and student representatives.

A consultation document will be published on 1 October.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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