Education & Family

Students to get best-buy facts and consumer rights

Durham University [Image: Durham University] / Illustrated example of possible future student key information set [Image: Hefce]
Image caption From glossy prospectus-style images... to proposed tables of consumer facts and figures

If the higher education system in England is going to become a market as never before, then students are going to be its mystery shoppers.

If you're spending up to £9,000 each year on tuition fees, you want to know what you're getting. So how are students going to decide?

Universities from next year will have to provide "key information", helping their student customers make value-for-money comparisons.

It's a cultural shift in how universities present themselves - more best-buy tables than big philosophical ideas.

Instead of artful pictures of cutting-edge buildings and young people enjoying themselves, this is more likely to mean a pie-chart showing how many former students are now in gainful employment.

There will be data showing the earnings of recent graduates, rental costs in the area, teaching hours and student satisfaction ratings, based on the results of the National Student Survey. The student union bar might get a mention.

Student charter

Each undergraduate course will have to be accompanied by this information, so applicants know how the course is taught and assessed.

Image caption Universities are going to have to be more transparent about course information

It should mean fewer hidden surprises about how many contact hours there will be with staff - or the value of the degree in the jobs market.

This compulsory fact box will have to be in place alongside the higher tuition fees next year.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has given an illustrated example of how this key information set might look.

The forthcoming White Paper on higher education is also expected to propose a way students can hold universities to account.

A "student charter" is expected, setting out the consumer rights of students and a framework for making sure universities keep their promises. This could even mean paying back part of the tuition fee if a university fails to deliver.

And this could be of interest to growing numbers of disgruntled students - with complaints about universities reaching record levels this year, according the annual report of the higher education ombudsman, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

'Great leap forward'

Aaron Porter, the outgoing National Union of Students president, has been co-chair of the student charter proposals.

Image caption Aaron Porter says universities need to give facts along with the marketing

He says the idea of giving key information to applicants is a "great leap forward".

He wants the student charter and the key information set to provide students with a more useful picture of what they can expect from a course.

"There has been an explosion of marketing from universities in recent years, with claims about the facilities on offer," says Mr Porter.

"Students are enticed by the flowery marketing-speak. But there are surprisingly few details about the curriculum and the learning experience.

"The open days are stage-managed events and there are stories about flowers being planted specially and buildings repainted.

"It means that students can make their choices on flimsy grounds, or rely on league tables."

Sir Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, said it was important for students to be able to make sense of the vast amount of information produced by universities - and to make useful comparisons.

The key information sets would mean generating 24,000 different sets of data about courses, he said.

"Universities already publish masses of data about student satisfaction and employment outcomes. But prospective students told us that they wanted to find the data more easily," he said.

Compare the market

Funding council chief executive, Sir Alan Langlands, said the changes to fees in 2012 would make it even more important for students to have "accurate, up-to-date and easily accessible information".

And Universities Minister David Willetts, who is driving the market model for higher education, has emphasised the importance of "empowering" students with better consumer information.

This key information data will provide a minimum set of comparable facts - but universities will be able to add more detailed information about what's on offer.

But it won't necessarily address all the bugbears - such as the star academics who appear more prominently on university websites than in their lecture halls.

And some information might remain elusive - such as how many students passed or failed or the degree grades awarded in previous years.

Campus safety is also not included. In the United States, universities and colleges have to provide detailed crime statistics on or near their campuses, so that would-be students and their parents can see if there are any safety fears.

There are also differences of opinion about the details of the proposed key information list for English universities.

Everyone wants more transparency, but the right kind of transparency.

The Russell Group of universities, which has a good record on drop-out rates, raised concerns the rate was not included. And they warned against narrow measurements of what's on offer rather than the "broader educational experience".

Meanwhile the 1994 Group of research intensive smaller universities points out there are different ways of measuring employment after graduation - arguing that looking at where former students are several years after graduation is more relevant than at six months after leaving.

There are still details to be decided about this information, including where it should be held.

This could mean these market comparisons are held in a single website, as well as on the websites of individual universities.

Whatever the final form, choosing a university course should be less of a leap in the dark for the student.

But for the universities, depending more than ever on the market choices of teenagers, it is a further step into the unknown.

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