Notes Where

Your ABC of where to study
by  John O'Leary
Choosing what and where to study  can be bewildering. Starting today and lasting all week, our most comprehensive  guide yet to universities will help you to select the right  course

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 the system.

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.