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Degrees of success: ANU and UC celebrate

The Australian National University has some of the best retention rates in the country, but the University of Canberra has better graduate employment outcomes according to the new My University website launched.

Student to staff ratios are also much lower at the ANU, at 18:1 compared with 24:1 at the UC. Despite a shaky start yesterday morning when My University failed to be picked up by search engine Google, it received around 20,000 hits by the close of business and almost 160,000 page views.

But while students now have a one-stop website which allows them to directly compare universities on everything from the number of car parking places to student satisfaction and lecturer qualifications, the website came under considerable fire from universities and academics for the quality of its data.

Universities Australia called on Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans to urgently fix several issues which it warned could seriously mislead student choice. The peak body for Australia’s 39 public universities highlighted ongoing sector concern with the use of attrition rates, staff/student ratios, entry score cut-off search functions, course mapping and search ability.

Chief executive Belinda Robinson said student/staff ratios were a blunt average across each institution and because they were not course specific could not be used to reliably assess class size. Attrition rates did not take into account course changes, so a university which catered flexibly for student choice might receive a rating which could be misinterpreted for low retention.

There were bugs in the search functions which affected any university which did not use an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank cut-off as well as any search for a double-barrelled subject, which, in the case of political science, would bring up hundreds of options from both politics and science disciplines.

”While the government has addressed a number of key concerns raised by Universities Australia throughout the consultation period, further improvements are required,” Ms Robinson said. Senator Evans defended the website yesterday saying student-staff ratios would force universities to address unacceptably large lectures and tutorials.

”If students start making choices around those issues and that affects enrolments, I’m sure you’ll find universities responding,” he said. He also flagged future additions including more information on employment outcomes by discipline, better data on student experiences and more information about what potential employers were looking for.

The president of the National Tertiary Education Union, Jeannie Rea, accused the government of failing to learn lessons from the My School website, instead creating league tables ”that do not address the issue of quality in higher education”. ”While the Minister claims the My University website is intended to lift performance and quality, the reality is that the information it is based on is at best limited, and at worst inaccurate and misleading,” she said.

”The use of student satisfaction scores in particular is prone to manipulation and does not reflect quality in teaching. ”Indeed, if institutions based their courses on whether students liked their subjects, which is essentially what these metrics capture, they would risk driving down the quality of degrees from Australian universities,” she said.

ANU deputy vice-chancellor (academic) Marnie Hughes-Warrington said she was thrilled with the ANU’s representation on the website. ”ANU rates outstandingly well,” she said. ”This allows us to make it clear how well we are performing on a range of indicators … In a sense the secret is out now and we are proud.”

UC’s acting vice-chancellor Professor Frances Shannon said it was ”pleasing to see our quality teaching reflected in strong scores for student satisfaction, good teaching and generic skills”.

”We are now ranked seventh in Australia for good teaching and for graduates going on to further study and we rank sixth in the country for the employability of our graduates,” Professor Shannon said. But he warned all potential students that My University ”is just one tool and they should not use it in isolation”.

Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor Greg Craven agreed it presented “much generalized information and how much useful and specific detail you can derive from it I am not sure”.

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