I ran a session on HE comparison websites and tools at the CRAC Decisions at 18 conference yesterday. To prepare for it, I looked at over 70 websites and programs, most of which had some very good features but there were some that troubled me because they were not well-maintained, had inaccuracies and made spurious claims about their importance as providers of HE information. (The website that claimed that London South Bank University is the 13th ranked coastal university will be hearing from me!). Things used to be much simpler. I still have a copy of UNIVCH written by the wonderful Mary Munro for the CRAC Careers on Computer Series in 1982.It included information on “all possible universities and university colleges”. There were 62 of them. Which?University has profiles on 372 unis and colleges today!
To make sense of this crowded field of HE careers websites, I divided them into four main categories. The first I called “official”. These are the sites such as UCAS and UNISTATS that provide us with the main data sets such as KIS (Key Information Set) that other sites draw on for their information. It is worth noting that a handful of sites in other categories such as What Uni?, The Student Room and Which University? also carry out their own student surveys for building up their university profiles. Generally speaking, the official sites provide independent and impartial information; but it is important to teach students to recognise the presence of promoted and advertising content wherever it crops up. UCAS, for example, has a trading arm (UCAS Media) that made £12 million in 2013 through activities such as selling student data and putting sponsored and featured content on its video wall.
The second category of websites I called “media businesses”. The Hotcourses group, co-founded by Jeremy Hunt, owns two of them (The Complete University Guide and What Uni?) and from which the Secretary of State received £960,000 in dividends in 2014-15. Other providers in this group include The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Times (behind a paywall). What the media businesses have in common is that they all make money out of selling advertising, placing branded content on their sites, sending email communications to registered student users and even running marketing campaigns for universities to boost recruitment. According to Times Higher Education (THE), some universities spend around £500,000 a year on marketing which is probably not surprising given that the undergraduate market overall is worth £15 billion a year.
What has been the impact of the mediatisation of higher education information and advice? They offer very attractive and easy-to-use sites with many good tools for exploring university profiles and for comparing courses that match students’ predicted grades. However, their main focus is on facilitating student recruitment rather than supporting students’ career development even if they do fulfil an important role in engaging parents. The quality of journalism is usually high but with very little input from careers professionals; and I have already mentioned the problem of sites which mix independent and impartial content with promoted and sponsored content without always making the distinction sufficiently clear to users. One of the primary effects of mediatisation has been the not altogether healthy rise of university league tables and rankings. The Complete University Guide produces an interesting poll of polls and there are many other captivating awards such as Food Made Good which went to Plymouth University this year (They also won People and Planet’s sustainable university of the year). Unfortunately for the promoters of awards, the Spatial Economic Research Centre at LSE has found that rankings have only a modest impact on students’ choices (http://www.spatialeconomics.ac.uk/textonly/SERC/publications/download/sercdp0142.pdf). It’s just a thought, but university rankings and how they are compiled would make a very good topic for a student choosing what to do for their AS Extended Project Qualification!
My third category is “student-centred” websites with a primary focus on young people’s overall wellbeing such as Brightside, The Mix (formerly The Site), bestCourse4me and The Student Room (TSR). They are mostly charitable organisations with the notable exception of TSR which as a private company has a strong commercial arm (http://tsrmatters.com/). The reason that TSR is in this category and not media business is that it is a trail blazer in developing content by students as well as for students. It incorporates innovative features such as the Reputation system which enables members to give and receive reputation points for good posts and student advisers can gain ‘Chatterbox’, ‘Clever Clogs’ and ‘Hero’ badges as well for helping other students. (For some of your students, getting a badge could make a good talking point on their CV or personal statement!)
“Career guidance” websites make up my final category. They include Career Companion, Centigrade, Fast Tomato, Heap Online, Higher Ideas, new Kudos for HE, Unifrog and Venture (includes the rest of Europe). These are licence/subscription sites which facilitate students’ HE and career decision-making and planning. Many include assessment tools such as matching questionnaires as well as student administration and tracking systems. They also provide independent and impartial careers information. Careers guidance platforms have struggled the most since 2010 to fund product development as schools and colleges have cut back on spending on careers resources. This has been the most worrying aspect for me of doing this survey of HE comparison websites and tools. These publishers do not have the financial reserves to invest in innovation and tackling neglected issues such as how we can use online tools to tackle stalled social mobility and other equality issues. Access to public funds for developing programs has not been an even playing field. One careers website benefited from nearly £2 million from BIS between 2012 and 2014 which was not awarded as a result of open competition. Media businesses have their part to play but we also need a strong career guidance sector.
Where does this leave the heads of sixth, school and college careers advisers and curriculum leaders for careers who need to put together a strategy for helping their students to make the best use of online HE websites and tools? It can be confusing and challenging. Simply expecting Google to come up with the answers, as many students do, is not a solution! Unfortunately, it all takes time to review the websites, work out how to integrate them into your own HE programme and produce a guide for your website or VLE that provides students with the tips and steps they need to take to get their HE planning right. There is no other option!