The annual Times Good University Guide, which starts today, is bigger and better than at
any time since it first appeared in 1993. Not only are there four more universities but, for
the first time, rankings cover all 53 subject areas in British higher education. In
addition, a more sophisticated method has been used to compare institutions.
Like comparisons by Government advisers, the main league table, to be published on Friday, will
take account of the different mix of subjects in universities. By allowing for the higher
proportion of first-class degrees in the sciences, for example, the system is better able to
compare like with like. Higher education remains in a state of flux, with the Government pressing
for renewed expansion and a more socially mixed student population. Funding pressures are
forcing universities to restructure and even, in some cases, to merge.
The guide, with its companion paperback and website, offers a starting point for the thousands of
students weighing up their options. The wealth of information now published by universities and
national bodies can swamp those who wade through it unaided.
Today and over the next three days, the guide will look at the most popular universities, students
favourite subjects, and the extra complications of choosing a college at Oxford or Cambridge.
The most important element for most students, however, will be the subject tables, which begin on
this page with the social sciences. While Fridays ranking of whole universities tends to capture
the headlines, top-performing departments are spread far more widely.
Nearly a decade after the first university inspections began, higher educations customers finally
have access to a full set of judgments from independent assessors on the quality of teaching.
They form the biggest element in all our tables and the full reports are available in print and
online (at www.qaa.ac.uk).
Ironically, the belated completion of the first round of assessments also marks the end of the
process in universities. Only those departments which achieved poor scores previously will be
inspected in future.
A few late assessments are still trickling in. In one case, for example, there had been a fire in
the department that was to be inspected, and the visit had to be postponed. But, while reports
will still be compiled for the moment in Scotland, students looking for objective information on
English universities will have to rely on much more general audit reports.
Only further and higher education colleges will continue to undergo teaching quality assessments
of the type that have been the norm over the past decade. And even they will switch to a lighter
touch eventually if their grades are consistently good.
University vice-chancellors succeeded in persuading ministers that the assessment arrangements
were wastefully bureaucratic and expensive without pointing up significant differences in
quality. Grades had drifted inexorably upwards as academics learnt what was required to satisfy
Instead of devising a better method of external assessment of individual courses, the
vice-chancellors and the national bodies responsible for quality and funding in higher education
decided that universities should be responsible for their own quality assurance. The audit
system, which will begin next February, will ensure that internal arrangements are reliable, but
will only drill down to a sample of subjects.
To compensate for the absence of detailed reports, universities will have to publish particular
statistics some of which are already available nationally as well as surveys of
student opinion and summaries of external examiners reports. The statistics will cover areas such as
drop-out rates and the destinations of students, but some of the information will refer to
whole universities rather than to individual subjects.
The switch has been overwhelmingly popular among academics, who resented the previous system, but
has prompted angry debate elsewhere. John Randall, who resigned as chief executive of the Quality
Assurance Agency at the height of the row, says: The greatest strength of the old system was that
it addressed what students and employers needed to know, which was the quality of
particular programmes. Institutional systems are important, but what the student joins is a
course, not a quality assurance scheme.
However, Margaret Hodge, the Higher Education Minister, says that the new arrangements will strike
a balance between the needs of students and reducing inappropriate burdens on institutions: This
adds up to a new package of valuable information which will help to inform future students, their
parents and business of where the best provision exists.
One unintended effect is likely to be to increase the demand for guides such as this. League
tables were one target of those who sought the abolition of subject assessments, and
vice-chancellors insisted that any new system should not be capable of translation into rankings.
But the tables existed before teaching assessments were published and will continue under the new
system. The vice-chancellors own research shows that half of all applicants use newspaper guides
and, as the one round of teaching quality reports becomes increasingly dated, more students will
look for alternative sources of comparison.
The raw material used to compile the overall ranking will be analysed in The Times Higher Education
Supplement on Friday. A paperback with additional information, including profiles of every university, will be published by Times Books later this month.