New website gives wannabe students vital information about drop-out rates and earnings

Garry Bodsworth, 32, grew up on council estates in London and Essex and received poor advice while at school about higher education. "It was more by luck than design that I ended up going to university," he says.

But he got into the University of Essex at the eleventh hour to study computer science and it proved worthwhile: he is now working for a Cambridge start-up company. It's frustrating, he says, that his childhood peers, who were just as bright as he was, didn't have his chances. Either they didn't know that university was an option or they were deterred by the cost.

This group of people will benefit from a new website, bestCourse4me.com, that has been spearheaded by the Shadow higher education spokesman David Willetts and bankrolled by Microsoft and the philanthropist and software engineer Steve Edwards. For the first time data on employment, careers and salaries are brought together in one place to help students to make the right choice of institution and subject for them.

At the flick of a switch you can find out what you earn, for example, if you study physics as against English (about £4,000 more a year, in case you wondered) and the employment rates of graduates of those subjects. You can discover how much more you earn if you study journalism at Westminster University compared with the University of Central Lancashire or philosophy at Durham compared with Bristol, and you can find out the drop-out rate from all institutions.

"It's really hard to dream if you don't know what dreams are out there," says Edwards.

Not only is this information useful for students, it will also put pressure on universities to show what they're doing to improve the prospects of their students, Willetts believes. He has been beavering away for the past 18 months on helping to set up the website together with Anna Vignoles, professor of education economics at London's Institute of Education. It is a not-for-profit enterprise, based on information collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency and other public bodies, and it's not a Conservative Party creation. But the Tories have been quick to throw their weight behind it. Even David Cameron was quoted in The Sun as saying: "There are a lot of misconceptions about what's a good university and a good course. This is a really great tool for finding out what courses actually work and what are the best routes to a rewarding career. It gives people vital information in an accessible way and I'm sure it will make a big difference."

Luke Sturgess-Durden, who worked on the technical development of the website, emphasises that it is impartial. "We're just trying to get the information out there," he says. "This is publicly available data and we have no agenda apart from helping people to access it."

Vignoles's specialism is the labour market value of different qualifications. She has been concerned for sometime that potential students simply didn't have the information they needed about the earnings they might expect from studying different subjects at different institutions – and she said so at a conference attended by Willetts. That set the ball rolling.

"The objective of the site is to give information to kids who don't get it at home," she says. "Teachers will be using this, we hope, to guide young people in their choices of A-levels and young people will want to look at which degree is most suited to them and where to study it."

The plan is to expand the website to give information to potential students on the GCSEs and A-levels needed for different courses at individual universities. So, if someone wants to read economics, say, at the London School of Economics, they need to know that the LSE prefers them to have studied maths, physics and chemistry rather than business studies at A-level. "For the average student that might not be something they realise," she says.

After that the hope is to expand further to include information about bursaries. This will be invaluable to students because there is a huge patchwork quilt of bursaries at universities around the country. Most universities have their own bursary schemes in addition to the government's student finance package. Then there are different bursaries for different subjects. At the moment it is difficult for students to find the best deal for them and many think that university is more expensive than it is.

The best-selling action writer Andy McNab, who is also helping with the website, says that at present most students don't get the information they need. Like Garry Bodsworth's friends they need to be given the facts to make informed decisions about their futures.

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