Meeting the Information Needs of Prospective Students

In his latest blog post, Graham Donelan, University Secretary at Liverpool Hope University, considers the demands on universities to meet the requirements of the growing regulatory information agenda. How much information is too much? And is it really meeting students’ needs?

Surely the point of providing information is to inform. I wonder if the supposed demand for applicants and students to have more information in the modern higher education system does this? Universities have always provided information to applicants through prospectuses, interviews, open days and, more recently, websites and social media channels. What is the problem?

We often hear the cry that “markets” demand “information” for their “customers” and this is applied then to higher education, or more specifically the relationship between applicants/students and universities. The immediate difficulty comes in defining what the “product” is – is it the degree certificate, the university, the teaching, the knowledge (either in itself or that transferred from the lecturer to the student), the whole experience? And do the “customers” all want the same “product”?

That is the problem with the Meerkat approach of Unistats – there are far too many variables in the “market” for a simple compare and contrast approach to work. Each applicant (I can’t keep calling them customers) will have their own set of information requirements and any single source or template (Unistats, KIS for example) will not fulfil that need.

Universities are grown-up institutions which have been around longer than most other institutions. Let’s trust them a little bit more to get things right, particularly in areas which determine their futures.

If universities get it wrong, there are enough external, independent ways to rectify it – CMA investigations, OIA, QAA Concerns Scheme, HEFCE Unsatisfactory Quality Scheme. But universities want to provide the best possible experience for the right students for that university – it is costly in terms of non-completion, reputation, time to recruit the wrong students through misinformation.

When the Coalition Government published a White Paper Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System in 2011, it did not herald the beginning of the marketisation of UK Higher Education – far from it – but it did mark a step change in the obsession with providing students with “information”.

A whole chapter – Chapter 2: Well-informed students driving teaching excellence – linked information with the quality of teaching, its very title suggesting a causal link. From paragraph 2.8 onwards, the focus is on information and this section of the White Paper opens with the sentences:

 “Our reforms aim to make the English (sic) higher education system more responsive to students and employers.  This depends on access to high quality information about different courses and institutions.” 

This all sounds very familiar as the sector battles with the concept of a Teaching Excellence Framework (I think it just about qualifies as a framework, at least) to provide more “information” for applicants to make their choice. Almost by definition, Bronze institutions will be deemed by some to be “third tier”. How ridiculous when those institutions are all meeting threshold academic standards and have passed a QAA review. How useful is that “information” to an applicant when the university with the Bronze might offer precisely the course they want and most, if not all of the students on that course, will have a fantastic experience?

Elsewhere, a recurrent theme from the HEPI-HEA Student Experience Survey has been the need for universities to be more transparent over finance; this is then echoed by the NUS, UCU, government ministers, the media.

There may be some applicants (or students) who, in the words of the 2006 White Paper “increasingly want to know how their graduate contributions are being spent” (for graduate contributions read tuition fees) but I don’t hear it that often.

The 2006 White Paper suggested universities should provide the sort of breakdown that local authorities send out each year with details of how one’s Council Tax is spent. How many people read that? Tuition fees are one element of a university’s income and universities’ expenditure is on a much broader range of activities than just teaching.

Even ignoring the different types of student and the wide variation between universities in the balance between Teaching and Research income as a percentage of total income and never mind what used to be called Third Stream income (enterprise, CPD, consultancy – that sort of stuff), universities have such a diverse set of Missions, priorities and activities that any sort of comparison is misleading or even useless.

A campus-based university which runs its own Halls of Residence is likely to spend a lower proportion of its income on, say, academic staffing than say a large inner-city university whose students reside in private developments. A university with a number of research libraries and museums may spend far more on that category of expenditure than a smaller university who has invested its resources into an undergraduate library, which proportionately may be better for that latter university’s students although expenditure on “libraries” will look better in the former.

Far better for universities to talk to their staff and student bodies about how the income is spent explaining all the nuances of depreciation, pension liabilities and other operating costs than to try and meet some supposed demand for “information” to be published setting all this out. You can’t do it in a digestible way.

The 2006 White Paper set out the plans for the Key Information Set (KIS). Fast forward six years and the KIS has now bitten the dust. Unistats is being relaunched (again, is that three or four times now?) and HEFCE (in a sure sign of it transforming into the Office for Students) has produced a Good Practice Guide on Publishing Information for Prospective Undergraduate Students which, I am sure, is very well-intentioned and it looks very nice, but it does look like most university prospectuses or subject webpages. That leads me to think that there isn’t an information deficit at all, but a thrashing around to find an answer to a problem that may not even exist.

Successive governments have spoken about the importance of the market and competition in higher education. This leads inevitably to having to speak of customers and customers want information, don’t they?

The logic fails immediately you accept that higher education does not operate in a market like those for insurance, broadband or energy. It’s far more complex than that and so are the information requirements of applicants. Government should stop trying to impose templates and frameworks.

If the market works, then those not providing what the applicant wants will surely fail. Isn’t that the point of a market?