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?