Monthly Archives: December 2011

Improving access to higher education information for prospective students

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Janice Kay talks about UniQs – a new web tool that helps students to make the right choice

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Janice Kay

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Janice Kay

Over the past 18 months, I have been involved in discussions about improving information for students in higher education. A particular sense of urgency was injected when the new funding arrangements were announced and the need to make sure that prospective students make informed decisions based on reliable and unbiased information could not have been more pronounced.

The Key Information Set is a significant achievement. It has moved the sector on from circular discussions about how or whether to present certain information, and put the needs of students first; the KIS is based entirely on what students told us they wanted to know about.

But there is still a long way to go. The KIS meets our obligation as a sector to provide a single, comparable information set. The next step must be to take this information to students and make it relevant to them and their decision making. Research by the 1994 Group of research-intensive universities found that a large quantity of the information that sits behind the KIS is not accessible enough, particularly to those from non-traditional backgrounds. We know this because students have told us.

Experience shows that people tend to be distrustful of information that is ‘supplier led’ and professionally presented. Consumer feedback and social media sites offer endless opportunities to verify information, to hear directly from the ‘punters’ and most importantly for students to receive information at times and in styles that suit them and their needs,

This poses two challenges for universities:

  • Reliability – if prospective students are distrustful of what they see in glossy, marketing material, how do we make sure that what they are reading is trustworthy?
  • Accessibility – with so many web-based sources of information and no way of controlling them, how do we ensure that core information remains visible and easy to find?

We can’t just hope that these challenges go away, if we do not engage with them, they will take on a life of their own, and misinformation could get out of control.

There are exciting possibilities to empower current students to share their experiences directly with prospective students, to talk about the opportunities available at university and the value of a higher education, not just the qualification.

This is why, I am pleased to have been working with the 1994 Group, Push and JISC to develop an innovative and exciting web tool that will seek to bind these sources together; empowering students to make better, more complete and reassuring decisions.

Prospective students will effectively be able to ask UniQs any question about higher education or student life and they will be pointed immediately to the best available content on the web – pre-screened and checked for quality.

As a sector, we cannot wait for prospective students to come to us to find information, we must take the information to them, make sure they find the information in places where they are likely to look. That’s why UniQs will utilise a diverse range of social networking sites and interactive student blogs; and professional services will be identified for students with more acute needs, such as care leavers.

There will be a website for UniQs, but its main home will be wherever students might look for answers: the websites of their school, of universities, of education or careers organisations. We have developed an innovative way of incorporating UniQs into current websites with a widget.

Without a sound and coherent system of information, advice and guidance we will find it difficult to attract, retain and grow a diverse student body in the years ahead. We have the evidence, we hold all the relevant data, it is now our job to make sure that prospective students can find it and make use of it.

Janice Kay is deputy vice-chancellor of the University and chair of the 1994 Group Student Experience Policy Group.

This article first appeared on the Guardian’s Higher Education Network website. To get more articles like this direct to your inbox, sign up for free to become a member of the Higher Education Network.