Uni comparison site ‘must be treated with caution’

The My University website could provide a distorted impression of life on campus. AAP/Luis Enrique Ascui

Students from today can compare Australia’s 39 public universities on course satisfaction levels, staff numbers, drop-out rates and graduate employment - but experts have warned the indicators could provide an inaccurate gauge of education quality.

Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans, who launched the My University website at Narrabundah College in Canberra this morning, said the site would empower students to make the “right call”.

“Enrolling at university is a huge life decision for young Australians and their families. My University will help ensure that students have all the relevant information to make an informed decision about what’s best for them,” Senator Evans said.

The launch of the $1.5 million website is designed to ensure accountability and transparency as universities compete for students in the new demand-driven system, under which places have been uncapped from this year.

It publishes information about fees, course cut-offs, lecturer qualifications, student satisfaction rates, graduate employment outcomes and student-staff ratios. It also provides information about amenities, such as car parking and child care, and details about clubs, societies and other elements of campus culture.

The launch follows the creation of the My School website, which went online in 2010. But just as that site has garnered substantial criticism from education experts, who say its broad and woolly figures are not reliable measures of education quality, so too has the My University website prompted warnings that misleading data could tarnish reputations at some institutions.

The measurement of student-staff ratios do not account for contract staff, for example, and are not a helpful indicator of experience in the classroom, said Andrew Norton, Program Director for Higher Education at the Grattan Institute.

“Some indicators need to interpreted cautiously,” Mr Norton said. “For example … a high drop-out rate may be because students have been accepted at another university or in the course that was their original first preference. However, combine it with low student satisfaction with that course and it might suggest problems that students should be aware of.

"The student satisfaction data is from an end-of-course survey, so until the University Experience survey of current students starts there will be a long lag time between a university improving its course and this showing in student satisfaction data.”

Graduate employment figures are assessed just four months out from the end of a course, and are therefore unlikely to provide a useful impression of long-term outcomes, Mr Norton said.

More than 90% of students enrolled in Accounting at the University of Technology, Sydney are satisfied with their course. www.myuniversity.gov.au

The executive director of the Australian Technology Network (ATN) of universities, Vicki Thornton, said she had warned the government about the limitations in the way student-staff ratios and attrition rates were calculated.

“Now with the information on the My University website, it comes with the caveat that this data is "what’s available” and will be part of a process of enhancing data over time. These subtleties are likely to be lost in the publicity now and the media coverage that will be generated in Australia and possibly overseas.“

The ATN had alerted the government to the potential risks to the reputation of universities internationally, she said, but "these [risks] seem to have been discounted in the process of getting the website up and improving the data later”.

Belinda Robinson, Chief Executive of Universities Australia, offered cautious support for the website but expressed concern about the accuracy and reliability of some information.

“Prospective students, making one of the biggest decisions of their lives, must have confidence that the information available to them presents an accurate and complete picture of the options they are considering,” said Ms Robinson.

“Getting it right is also essential for the reputation of universities operating in an increasingly competitive market brought on by the demand-driven enrolment system.

"We don’t believe the MyUniversity website is there yet, particularly in relation to attrition rates, staff-student ratios, the entry score cut-off search function, course mapping and searchability.”

But Mr Norton said despite the website’s shortcomings, some information was better than no information. “Though there are positive trends over time, every university survey shows that there is substantial room for improvement in teaching and student engagement.”

In the demand-driven system, there was an opportunity to reward universities that were making an effort, and provide an incentive for improvement for those that were falling behind.

He added: “If universities think that their performance is not being accurately portrayed, they should release the internal data that all of them collect - but few publish - on student satisfaction.”

But the National Tertiary Education Union said the My University website showed the Federal Government was focussed on league tables rather than quality in higher education.

“The use of indicators, including cost of library photocopying, whether your university has a swimming pool and the number of car parking spaces on campus, fails to address the real quality issues in higher education, such as insufficient government funding and a highly casualised workforce,” said president Jeannie Rea.