Critics counter website allowing university indicator comparisons

For the first time, students from around the world can compare Australia’s 39 public universities on the basis of their courses, student satisfaction levels, the qualifications of academics, staff-student ratios, drop-out rates and graduate employment.

Although criticised immediately for including information of doubtful validity, the MyUniversity website is probably unique in providing so many comparative details of each university’s operations.

Officially launched on Tuesday 3 April in Canberra by Tertiary Education Minister Senator Chris Evans, MyUniversity is an interactive, searchable site that includes a wide variety of indicators. Evans 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. MyUniversity will help ensure that students have all the relevant information to make an informed decision about what’s best for them,” he said.

Evans said the site was designed to ensure accountability and transparency as universities began competing for students in Australia’s new demand-driven system after the government this year lifted limits on the number of students each university could enrol.

Creation of the A$1.5 million website was foreshadowed by then education minister Julia Gillard two years ago and follows similar ventures for Australian schools and hospitals.

The MySchools site has generated considerable controversy since it was first launched in January 2010, and has resulted in league tables of schools being drawn up by some newspapers.

As well as basic information about courses, enrolment numbers, student backgrounds and gender, the site provides details of amenities such as car parking and child care along with clubs, societies and other aspects of campus culture.

Belinda Robinson, chief executive of the national lobby group Universities Australia, was cautious about endorsing the website and seemed more concerned by the accuracy and reliability of some information now being made publicly available.

“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,” Robinson said.

“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. While the government has addressed a number of key concerns raised by Universities Australia throughout the consultation period, further improvements are required.”

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) was more sceptical, if not deeply critical, saying the site showed the government was “focused on league tables rather than quality in higher education”.

“The use of indicators, including cost of library photocopying, whether a 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,” NTEU President Jeannie Rea said.

“While the minister claims the MyUniversity website is intended to lift performance and quality, the reality is that the information it is based on is at best limited, and at worst inaccurate and misleading.”

Rea said that if students were looking to base their choice of institution on whether a campus had an automatic teller machine, the site might be useful. But if they wanted an indication of the quality of teaching and research at any given institution, the information provided relied on a set of indicators that had been under question for many years.

The union had been critical for some time of the misuse of statistical data, such as graduate employment outcomes and student satisfaction results, in determining the quality of learning and teaching. Yet these were included as measurable indicators of quality by the website.

“The use of student satisfaction scores in particular is prone to manipulation and does not reflect quality in teaching. Indeed, if institutions based their courses on whether students liked their subjects, which is essentially what these metrics capture, they would risk driving down the quality of degrees from Australian universities.

“There is always a danger of teaching to the test – or the survey, in this case,” Rea said.

She said the diversity of Australian universities made it difficult to attempt any comparisons. Although the union believed students should be able to make an informed choice of where best to study, it should be just that – an informed choice based on accurate, clear and transparent information.

“This can only happen if the indicators or measures used to create this information are specific, widely understood and agreed, and incapable of institutional manipulation.”

* Foreign students could be confused by the existence of another MyUniversity website. The European MyUniversity consortium consists of 13 partners from seven European countries and was launched in October 2010. According to the site, the 30-month-long project will demonstrate “how universities could use an array of specific e-participation tools for involving university members and stakeholders in transparent higher education decision-making processes at local, national and EU levels”.