Like the Dutch government, the UK Higher Education authorities have been urging for more and more information to be provided to prospective University students to help them make the right decisions about the course they intend to take. However, are students being overloaded with information, that is clouding their decisions.
Traditionally, prospective students would choose a study direction, then the location, for local polytechnic students that would normally mean the local University, for academic students it would be one of a handful of research universities that offered the chosen study direction, probably based on the image of the University, and the attractiveness of the town in which it was situated.
In recent years there has been an explosion of specialised bachelor programmes, and whereas instead of a basic business administration programme, students have been offered a myriad of business fields to choose from, ranging from areas as abscise as gaming business management to international sports marketing management!
According to the Times Higher Education, a recent report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) “bombarding prospective students with information about degree courses can lead to ‘decision paralysis’ which results in poorer choices”.
As Dutch higher education waits eagerly for the results of the National Student Survey (NSS / NSE), it is therefore actually questionable whether or not students can actually make sensible choices based on rows and rows of comparative data, whilst a general 'gut feeling’ and word of mouth also have great influences on a student’s choice.
The data collected from the National Student Survey is used in many other databases that offer information about higher education in the Netherlands, and is clearly not always representative. For instance, the NSE is often used by the private sector to rank itself against the public sector, and whilst it is true that smaller schools often score higher due to a closer student-institute relationship, oddities can occur, such as in last year’s results for the sector Hospitality Management, where a small private Hotel School dominated the top 5 ‘rankings’ as each of its local campuses counted for a separate institute and the numbers of students who voted were extremely low in comparison to the larger public institutions. On the other hand, it can be argued that had the small school students voted with only a few numbers negatively, the result would have been disastrously opposite (for that institute).
According to the report the overload of data is not resulting in a change of decision making drivers - students continue to rely on their emotional feeling for choice “a person’s final selection of a University often comes down to whether or not it feels right”. The information age was expected to change that, through offering students much data on cost, success rates, dropout rates, quality of teaching, etc, however possibly the way in which the data is being offered is overwhelming, leading to “sub-optimal decisions”. One solution could possibly be a system of comparison more used in the commercial retail industry, in which “customers can select institution and course criteria depending on their requirements”.
by James Wittenborg
©Wittenborg University Press