The current narrative about higher education is that we need to provide more information, to students, prospective students, government and other stakeholders. A central plank of 2011 White Paper was that comparable data would be made readily available:
Each university will now make the most requested items available on its website, on an easily comparable basis. These items, together with information about course charges, are called the Key Information Set (KIS) and will be available on a course by course basis, by September 2012,although many of the items of information are already being made available prior to their incorporation in the KIS.
And so we embarked on the work of editing and checking the data to go into KIS, and duly inserted course widgets on website pages. Cue howls of despair, as people started to realise this opened up a few problems. How did some universities honestly say they were teaching that many hours per week? How come the student survey data was not at award level but potentially misleadingly at JACS3? And the same for employability data? Why did the average contact hours drop if you included a placement year?
Anyway, a new report commissioned by HEFCE and reported in this week’s Times Higher, seems to show making lots of information available is not necessarily working. The key findings of the report show:
The decision-making process is complex, personal and nuanced, involving different types of information, messengers and influences over a long time. This challenges the common assumption that people primarily make objective choices following a systematic analysis of all the information available to them at one time.
Greater amounts of information do not necessarily mean that people will be better informed or be able to make better decisions.
From the Times Higher article:
Beth Steiner, a senior higher education policy adviser at Hefce, told a workshop last month that the findings had “raised several questions in our minds about Unistats and how fit for purpose it might be”.
She said that one solution could be a system that allows students to select “different levels of detail” about courses. A Hefce spokesman said the council was not anticipating any changes to Unistats before 2017.
Ms Steiner said that Hefce had assumed that “if you give them [prospective students] lots and lots of information, they will take that information and they will systematically work through it and they will make a reasoned analysis and decision based on that analysis”.
“We fully own up to that assumption, which we have made in the past – but it’s clearly not realistic,”
But is this really that much of a surprise?
Do people always act as rational consumers when making purchase decisions? There is a lot more at play in the decision-making process for potential students: family connection to a university, locality, sports facilities, type of campus. This list could go on, but importantly contains factors that are not readily reduced to simple numbers. This is summarised in the summary of the report as:
Preferences are often partially-formed and endogenous to social and economic context, and people are rarely fully informed utility maximisers
As I posted on Twitter:
This is not to dismiss this work out of hand, there are some important principles in the final summary that anyone involved in providing student information will find interesting. The challenge will be to understand how we can interpret and apply this, at the same time as the market principles that currently underpin higher education dominate the narrative with some not fully formed ideas about how markets and consumers really operate.