Criticisms of colleges kept from students: Universities' failings are revealed in reports that are not publicised although they could affect enrolments. Ngaio Crequer reports

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The Independent Online
PROSPECTIVE students are being kept in the dark about reports which reveal universities' failings.

The Higher Education Quality Council, which is funded partly by the universities and partly by the Government, has so far produced about 75 reports on different institutions. But they are deliberately not publicised. Although the universities themselves receive a copy, they are not sent out to the national media and few people even know of their existence.

Yet although they are mainly positive, they also contain significant criticisms. Dons at Oxford, for example, were told to take a more active interest in the teaching and learning of their students. Lecturers at Sussex were required to give students more feedback on their academic progress.

An individual can write to the council and pay pounds 5 for a copy of a report. 'But a prospective student does not know they exist in the first place,' Dermot Kehoe, a vice-president of the National Union of Students, said. 'They should not just be restricted to the academic realm.'

He said that students might think twice about applying to a particular university after having read the report on it.

Last night, Bryan Davies MP, Labour's spokesman on higher education, accused the universities of being insensitive to public opinion.

'I think the wider world has a right to know that authoritative assessments are being made about university quality and we need to know about the work this council does,' he said. 'I have no sympathy with the view that these reports should be kept as a closed exercise, which the higher education world keeps to itself.'

Each report is based on a visit by a three-strong team appointed by the council, usually of academics. The team checks to see whether the right procedures or mechanisms are in place to ensure the highest academic standards. It examines, for example, the truth of claims made in the university handbook given to students - such as about following up student progress, or access to libraries or observing the performance of new lecturers.

Dr Peter Williams, the director of the council, said: 'A large number of people know about these reports. Anybody who makes inquiries of the council will be told about them.

'They are not particularly exciting reads for applicants. The question of whether they are 'published' or not is a technical one. They are published because they are sent to all higher education institutions and all major agencies in HE.' He said that from this summer they would appear in university prospectuses.

The issue of how you measure quality is controversial. In a separate exercise, the higher education funding councils observe lectures and look at individual subject areas. They give ratings of excellent, satisfactory or unsatisfactory for each subject examined. These reports are sent to the national media.

Dr Clive Booth, vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, and a vice-chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, said last night: 'I do not think there can be any reason why the Higher Education Quality Council reports should not be fully in the public domain.

'It is essential for public confidence that this is so. I do not support any half-way house. We are all big girls and boys now. We should have a single system of quality assurance to replace this present chaotic one.'

He added: 'The whole system is under a lot of strain at the moment. This foray into assessing quality is poorly thought out and lacks confidence. . . . I think we should streamline the system and have quality reports which are both hard- hitting and public.'

(Photograph omitted)