The UK’s white paper: toward a user-pays system

By Danny Byrne, Editor of

On 28th June the UK government published a White Paper, outlining proposals for a new university quality assurance system. In the wake of the raising of the fee cap to £9,000 from 2012 onwards, universities will be forced to publish details of their employment rates for different courses, along with other performance-related information.

This is clearly a concession to the argument that in a market-based system students have a right to receive evidence of university performance rather than merely promotional assurances from websites and prospectuses. But does it go far enough in empowering the consumer in what is increasingly a global higher education market?

Evidence-based marketing has been an increasingly important strategy for universities since the advent of rankings, which have helped ensure that reputation is based on current output rather than merely historic prestige. As rankings have become more established students now have access to comparative data on universities around the world that helps them make more informed decisions about where and what to study.

Yet as most intelligent commentators acknowledge, there are limits to the type of information a ranking is able to accommodate. Some aspects of university performance are easier to measure than others, and any international ranking has a responsibility to ensure it only uses data that is universally available. What’s more, a top 500 only incorporates a small percentage of the world’s universities. A large number of universities offering a high-quality education to prospective students necessarily fall outside of the published range.

For this reason QS has developed the QS Star rating system, which measures an unlimited number of universities in relation to preset thresholds in 30 different areas. As well as employment, students will have access to information on teaching, infrastructure, internationalization, knowledge transfer and third mission, as well as rank within a specialist subject.

In an international knowledge economy transformed by unprecedented student mobility it also carries the essential benefit of comparing universities at a granular level across borders. This is both a rich source of information for prospective students, and a valuable opportunity for institutions to back up their quality assertions with tangible evidence.

The UK government’s adoption of this approach acknowledges that in an increasingly user-pays system, evidence is paramount. The comprehensive international comparative system offered by QS Stars is now set to take this approach to the next level.

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