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?

Advertisements

External Examiner review (and quality and standards)

Universities UK is to undertake a review of external examining

A press release from Universities UK gives some background to the recently announced review of external examiners:

In his keynote speech at the Universities UK Annual Conference, President Professor Steve Smith announced that UUK, together with GuildHE and in collaboration with agencies such as the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) and the Higher Education Academy (HEA), would lead a UK-wide review of external examiner arrangements. This review will seek to ensure that the system remains robust, recommending any improvements uniuk240px
which would continue to support the comparability of academic standards and meet future challenges.

The Group, which will be chaired by a Vice-Chancellor (to be announced) and include representatives from across the sector, will address various issues, including:

  • The need to develop Terms of Reference for the role, to support consistency
  • Reinforcing the specific role of external examiners in ensuring appropriate and comparable standards
  • Analysing the level of support given by institutions to external examining, both financial and professional
  • Current and future challenges and changing practice (such as modularisation) and their implications for external examining
  • Comparing the UK system with international practice

After 12 months, the Group will produce a report, highlighting the immediate short-term improvements, as well as longer term challenges and how these should be addressed.

Meanwhile, HEFCE has just announced the outcome of a study on quality and standards which has been picked up by the BBC. Its recommendations include:

  • a review is needed of publicly available information provided by higher education institutions (HEIs) to meet the needs of students, parents, advisers and professionals
  • a complete review of the external examiner system should be undertaken
  • the degree classification system should be improved so that it better reflects student achievement.

Looks like there will be a bit more work then beyond external examiners but these do not seem to be hugely challenging tasks (indeed they have been on the agenda for some time) and reflect the conclusions of the HEFCE report that “There is no systemic failure in quality and standards in English higher education (HE), but there are issues needing to be addressed”.

This UUK external examiner review, supported by the HEFCE study, represents a speedy response to the recent (truly dreadful) report of the IUSS Select Committee. The IUSS report recommends the implementation of one of the 1997 Dearing recommendations, rejected at the time, on the creation of a national system of external examiners. It is to be hoped that the UUK review arrives at something sensible. (For anyone with a longish memory on these things it feels a bit like 1994-95 again and the Graduate Standards Programme and its reviews of external examining.)