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Go-ahead for university league tables

UNIVERSITY league tables are to be introduced by the Government to help students choose degree courses.

Following the controversial publication of school examination tables for parents, ministers are insisting that higher education teaching and research ratings must be published as part of the 'information revolution' proclaimed by John Patten, Secretary of State for Education.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England will give details this week of its rolling programme to assess teaching quality in all university departments, starting with chemistry, history, law and mechanical engineering. The reports, which will be published, will classify departments as 'excellent', 'satisfactory' or 'unsatisfactory'.

Universities are alarmed that the reports will form the basis for future funding from the council. Combining quality inspection and funding under the same body will leave academic freedom vulnerable to political pressure, said the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.

Tim Boswell, the higher education minister, insists that not only would unsatisfactory departments attract bad publicity, but their funding would be cut directly. Departments that failed to after students would be shown the 'yellow card', said Mr Boswell, who has two student daughters. He has reacted enthusiastically to demands from the National Union of Students for greater openness and better information.

Leaders of the union - which was denounced by Mr Patten at last year's Tory conference - were in detailed discussions last week with senior civil servants at the Department for Education over what performance indicators should be published. Drop-out rates, the percentage of first-class degrees obtained, and graduates' success in finding jobs are among indicators under consideration.

Some of this information is available from various sources, but not easily accessible; putting it all together will form the basis of comprehensive league tables, although the Department for Education said that it had no plans to publish the information in that form itself.

University research work has been graded by the funding council for several years on a scale from international excellence (5) to below national excellence (1). This has already prompted league tables in newspapers, but its impact on student choice has been minimal.

Information on teaching, however, is likely to have a powerful impact on applications.

A 'flunk rate' league table on drop-out rates was published last year in the Polytechnic and University Students' Handbook, based on figures supplied by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, which represents the heads of the old universities.

The appearance for the first time this summer of a combined admissions handbook for the old universities and former polytechnics is likely to lead to arguments between ministers and universities about what should be included.