Its proposals for a Higher Education Charter, published last month, take a markedly more cautious approach to promoting 'consumer choice' in education than the Parents' Charter of 1991, which requires schools to take part in local league tables of examination results, information on leavers' destinations and attendance rates.
The Higher Education Charter proposals state only that students are entitled to 'clear and accurate information about universities and colleges and the courses they offer, including initial entry requirements', and to 'know how well different universities are performing'.
Existing guides and prospectuses will be sufficient to fulfil the first entitlement, it is suggested, while individual universities will be required to publish the results of audit and assessment exercises they have undergone to satisfy the second. In future, the Higher Education Funding Council England (HEFCE) will 'arrange for the publication of information about the performance of universities and colleges, including degree results and the number of graduates who gain employment'.
Barham Bekhradnia, director of policy at the HEFCE, insists that this information will not be in the form of league tables. 'It will be straight information with universities listed in alphabetical order,' he says. Results of the national research assessment exercise conducted every three years by the funding councils are likely to be included, and perhaps the outcomes of the teaching quality assessment exercise launched this year.
But vice-chancellors believe that the more accessible and larger pool of information about universities' performance will make league tables inevitable. Ken Edwards, vice- chancellor of Leicester University and chairman-elect of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP), says: 'If no one else, some entrepreneur would come along and gather this information into a booklet and publish it.'
They also acknowledge the need for information in a comparative form that can be easily assimilated to enable prospective students to make informed choices, but they are hostile to the idea of a single league table that ranks universities from best to worst.
Ted Nield, spokesman for the CVCP, said: 'Our criticism of unitary league tables is that the compilers have to assume that they know what all students want. That might have been possible some years ago, when all students came straight from school at the same age, but these days it is certainly not the case. What is desirable for one person is not for another.'
Dr Edwards hopes the CVCP will produce its own tables based on objective and reliable criteria. 'The question of how to get this information to students in a way that doesn't provide them with a quick and easy but spurious ranking is an important issue, and one that we have got to grapple with. If the CVCP undertook this task, I think it might provide a form of information with more value and more authority,' he said.
Information on degree results, research quality, entry requirements, staff-to-student ratios, completion rates, graduate employment rates and a host of other indicators are already available from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. The difficulty lies in identifying which indicators are sufficiently broad to provide easily digestible information to students, yet accurately reflect the diversity of higher education and are free from bias.
Leslie Wagner, vice-chancellor of the University of North London, said: 'Performance indicators need to be linked to objectives: once you are sure what a university is trying to achieve you can try to measure it.' Information on entry requirements, recorded in the form of the A-level scores demanded by universities, were hardly a helpful indicator of quality in an institution for which serving the needs of mature and other non-traditional entrants was a high priority.
David Harrison, vice-chancellor of Exeter University and chairman of the CVCP, said that indicators could be valid in one field but not in another. 'League tables drawn up using the funding councils' research assessment exercise do get pinned up, and as a measure of research judgement that's fine. But it is unfair to use them as a measure of teaching quality because the new universities have not been eligible for funding council research money for long enough to be fairly judged,' he said. Even the proportion of graduates in permanent employment after six months could be misleading when applied to professional subjects that involve a practice year after graduating.
Dr Edwards' answer is for the CVCP to produce information packs for each subject which would contain both a subject-specific league table and set of general information sheets that would be slotted into the back of every pack.
'What we need is information that is meaningful to students presented in an accessible form that allows them to make up their minds in relation to the priorities that are important to them,' he said.