Not enough information: colleges turn on Unistats’ ‘misleading’ data (UK)

By David Matthews

Student information website provokes dismay in further education sector. David Matthews reports.

The new official Unistats website, which lists student satisfaction levels and other data about all UK higher education courses, has been described as misleading by colleges and smaller specialist institutions. Information held by the site on more than four in five courses taught by colleges is incomplete because there are not enough students on the programmes to be counted.

Colleges are also concerned that where students are taught by them but registered at validating universities, satisfaction scores are being conflated. Nick Davy, higher education policy manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC), explained that at least 23 students have to respond to the NSS – and at least half the students on the programme have to complete it – for a course’s score to be recorded on Unistats.

If a course fails to meet this threshold, its satisfaction score is either not listed or is worked out from the average of a larger subject pool, which can include students registered at the same validating university but not studying at the college. “The information does not relate to the course the [students] are looking at,” said Mr Davy. “We would say that is misleading.”

At least 80 per cent of higher education courses at colleges have at least one field of information missing, he said. The problem was a major concern among the AoC’s members, he said. “It’s brought up at every regional meeting I go to,” he explained. He added: “This is not a level playing field [with universities].” The AoC has written to the Higher Education Funding Council for England to set out examples where colleges have had to display inaccurate data about their courses.

Sarah Shobrook, team leader for higher education at Truro and Penwith College, said that the rules regarding Key Information Sets – one of the data building blocks for Unistats – had forced the college to publish aggregated satisfaction data in its prospectus despite knowing they were wrong. Dr Shobrook argued that the KIS system appeared to have been designed for large universities with significant sets of data, rather than small colleges.

Philip Davies, assistant director of higher education at Bournemouth and Poole College, said that at his college, the satisfaction data for its popular music course were “identical” to that for three other performing arts courses at the institution. “These courses are taught by different people, run by different departments and operate on different sites, yet are presented as being the same, which is at best misleading and inappropriate,” he said.

There is also discontent with Unistats among smaller specialist institutions. Andy Westwood, chief executive of Guild HE, which represents such specialists, said that the group was “concerned that Unistats isn’t yet able to provide useful information for students wishing to study in some specialist institutions”. “In some cases small cohort sizes mean that the information isn’t available at all or is taken from data that don’t really fit or capture the course or the experience,’ he added. A Hefce spokesman said that it was “aware of these issues” and was “considering how to improve the information available for prospective students on Unistats”.

Source: Times Higher Education