Code of practice needed to “halt degree course mis-selling”

Should universities stop using NSS data to promote courses?

An interesting article by John Holmwood on the questionable validity and reliability of the National Student Survey – he argues that universities and others should not therefore use the outcomes of the NSS in league tables or promotional material. Furthermore, he argues that a code of practice is needed to stop what he says is degree course mis-selling:

It is a clear public interest that there be proper standards in the presentation of information to prospective students. The changes to higher education funding are of such far-reaching importance that the presentation of information should be subject to scrutiny by the UK Statistics Authority. A first step might be for Universities UK —and the separate University Mission Groups, such as Russell Group, 1994 Group, and Million+ to agree a Code of Practice among its members not to use statements of rank order position in their claims about their own institution and courses. It is a matter of shame for universities that this is necessary in the presentation of evidence, appropriate standards for which are intrinsic to their raison-d’être.

It’s a well-argued case. But in an environment where every institution will be competing even more fiercely for applicants, where they will be required to publish a particular set of information by government, where there is a plethora of league tables which draw on NSS data it would be surprising if any university or mission group would sign up for such a code. Of course the National Student Survey and league tables have flaws and there aren’t any league tables which stand up to serious academic scrutiny. But they aren’t going to go away and universities aren’t going to stop using the outputs where they believe it is in their interest to do so. And as for involving the UK Statistics Authority, do we really want even more regulation and intervention in universities’ business than we already have?


Research universities should consider merging

Research universities should “consider merging”

According to a report of a speech by Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor of Warwick:

The top 30 could merge, either with each other or with big American universities, and contemplate bringing in more private providers or collaborate together more formally. Foreign merger or takeover might solve chronic university underfunding, he said, and produce “interesting scientific synergies” if UK and US universities joined.

Although it looks a bit bald here there are, I think, some interesting thoughts underlying this about the way in which universities can collaborate successfully for mutual benefit. Although this is not just about mergers, the idea that currently highly successful institutions would merge for longer term sustainability (rather than as a result of some form of crisis) is a novel one.


The alternative could be the slow decline of institutions unable to produce enough research papers, clusters of top academics or scientific facilities to keep up with the world leaders. He also raised the possibility of private ownership of a few, which would increase diversity and relieve stretched higher education funding. Universities already face squeezed public and private funding and caps on student numbers because of the recession and Thrift argued that international competition would “intensify markedly” for the estimated 150 million students worldwide in 2010. Research-intensive institutions would be hit most severely by increased competition from other countries as they recovered from the recession, he said.

So, the situation is grim and this is one way out. But will Russell and 94 Group universities see things this way?