Roger Brown is spot on with his recent Guardian article “Student choice is a myth - and it's immoral”. He starts off with a reference to the Key Information Set (KIS), something I have written about on previous occasions. Most of the information in the KIS is meaningless and is subject to manipulation by institutions in any case— if you start judging organisations by certain figures, the leaders of these organisations are apt to focus on improving the figures, even if they are totally irrelevant to quality. I’m yet to be convinced that any aspect of the KIS will be useful in informing student choice. I suspect that it will inform student choice, but in the same way that Mystic Meg informs people of which lottery numbers to choose.
What interested me most about Professor Brown’s article was this comment:
…the emphasis on student choice is actually immoral. It loads upon immature participants all the responsibility and risks of making the wrong choice, a choice that is hard to unravel once made.
I wrote a blog post in December which responded to an article comparing higher education choice to buying car insurance.
I said it there and I'll say it again. The two things are not alike. If my car insurance company treats me badly or put its prices up I’ll go elsewhere next year. I can replace my car if it dies on me, though I will be annoyed. If my house fell down I could find somewhere else to live. In North America graduates often refer to their college as their alma mater (that is a “nourishing mother”) – a sense of the great esteem in which one’s university is held. Despite all the emphasis on the rights of parents to choose a school for their children, research seems to suggest that a child’s life outcomes are influenced much more by what happens at home than by what happens at school. Is a poor or regretted choice of university course as damaging as an uncaring parent? Is blaming an 18 year-old for making a poor decision in the choice of university like blaming a child living in poverty for choosing parents who don’t have much money?
The (US) Chronicle has just run an article about a graduate student called Monica Johnston who has an $88,000 debt. Part of the reason for her debt was that she spent $40,000 attending an institution with a great reputation, which turned out not to be right for one reason or another. Some of those commenting on the article suggest that much of this debt is her own fault for spending a year at an unsuitable college and failing to graduate. I know nothing about the college Ms Johnston dropped out of or the one she is at now, but the choice to go to that expensive college obviously seemed like a good idea at one point. It was not the right choice and it has substantially increased her debts. I’m not sure that a KIS or anything like it would have prevented her from going there. It may have actually led her to being more even more unsuitable choices.
A friend asked for my advice on applying for undergraduate courses last year. I was able to give some help, but I was shocked at how little help I was really able to give despite having spent the last 17 odd years studying and working in higher education. There are so many variables in play, different course content and combinations, reputation, distance from family and friends, and career possibilities (for someone who like many young people is not fully sure what she wants to do afterwards). The KIS would have been worse than useless and league tables are no use. In fact we could have ended up in conversations with me explaining that just because Course X has a graduate employment rate of 73% and Course Y of 75% does not necessarily make Course Y the better choice. But students will make choices on this sort of basis.
My worst fear is not that students will ignore the KIS. My fear is that it could become the sacred text of university applications.