Heading for a First… Which?
At the start of this week the Observer reported that well-respected consumer rights magazine Which? will now publish a guide to British universities. Not that much more evidence was required, it was further proof that our university system is moving toward a more market based system. And in the same way Which? has helped generations of consumers purchase the right car or kitchen appliance, universities are now next in the queue for the Which? treatment.
At the surface, the prospect of an independent, well researched assessment of what is provided in our universities should be welcome, particularly by prospective students and their parents, there are some considerations that need to be thought through. When deciding to assess a car or a washing machine, there are some pretty indisputable factors where transparent information is helpful. Whether that’s reliability, price, dimensions or terms and conditions. But judging an education isn’t quite so easy. It’s not just difficult to decide which measures are the most important. Is academic progress more important than final degree outcomes? How important is the research environment for an undergraduate? How do you account for the distinctiveness of a small and specialist institution that may not benefit from the economies of scale, but more than compensate with a stronger sense of community. Talking of which, how do you begin to measure ‘a sense of community’?
As I see it, for Which? to simply move beyond a compilation of the greatest hits from the plethora of league tables that already exist, their real challenge will be to try and capture the essence of different institutions, their mission, strengths and weaknesses. Simple metrics don’t do justice to the broader importance and value of a higher education experience, so here’s hoping for something more sophisticated than that.
Heading for a Fail… University applications
It always looked likely given the confusion and anger with the government’s reforms to higher education funding, but this week we got the first signs of evidence that for the first year of higher tuition fees in 2012, university applications were indeed headed for decline.
Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS) showed that the applications received by 15 October were 9% lower than this time last year. It’s important to note that the final deadline for applications is not until the middle of January 2012, so this is far from a definitive picture, but the early signs don’t look good.
Personally I don’t consider a small decline in applications overall to be a huge problem, there will still be more people applying for a place than there are places to go round. In fact even a 9% decline will mean that thousands of qualified applicants would still miss out on a university place. The analysis that is crucial is to determine which groups of students are applying in greater (or fewer) numbers than before. A fall in applications which hits 10% or more is politically damaging for the coalition. But if the decline is particularly concentrated amongst poorer applicants or certain ethnic groups, then it will be more damning.
At first glance, a 9% drop is fairly troubling though. But there are two important factors to bear in mind. The first is an issue of demographics, the numbers of 18 year olds eligible to apply in 2012 is actually fewer than 2011, as a consequence of a slowing of the birth rate in the early 1990s. This may account for as much as 5% of the fall. But countering that, a small amount of analysis of the early UCAS figures show that applications to Oxbridge, dentistry, medicine and veterinary science (which have an early deadline) fell by only 0.8%. This would therefore indicate that the fall everywhere else is actually closer to 20%, but it could also mean that applicants are actually taking more time to consider their options, but will still ultimately decide to apply.
Whilst it is important to monitor these figures closely, it’s also important not to lose sight of two crucial issues. Despite the rising cost to the individual the broader benefits of higher education need to continue to be articulated, probably louder than ever before. And when it comes to the financial information, government through initiatives like the Independent Student Finance Task Force which has organised a National Student Money Day on Monday 14th November, need to maintain a visible presence to ensure that prospective students understand the deal, whether they agree with it or not.