July 2016


The EUC web portal: a guide to navigating the sea of data on the university system?

Albert Gili and Aitor Palomares - Members of Student Advisory Committee

Estudis Universitaris de CatalunyaThere has been much talk of late of information overload, or the inability to assimilate too much information. The concept arose with the progressive universalisation of access to information on the Internet and is here to stay. In view of this phenomenon, tools for filtering, aggregating and collating data are vital as a guide to navigating the existing sea of data, with travel browsers being but one of many examples. In the wide ocean of what is the system of higher education and universities in Catalonia, a new resource of this kind has recently become available with the EUC web portal (Degree Courses at Universities in Catalonia) developed by AQU Catalunya. The web portal, which functions basically as a search engine, provides access to information on any Bachelor or Master's degree offered by higher education institutions in Catalonia, including a description of the degree programme, the programme's latest quality assurance reports and various basic indicators. The EUC has been set up with a view to make all of this data available to a wide range of stakeholders and to present it in a way that is easy to access and understand. Will it be able to accomplish this goal?

Compared to other applications that offer information on degree courses in Catalan universities, the main advantage of the EUC is, on the one hand, an emphasis on the clarity of the indicators for the purposes of comparison between different degree courses and, on the other, inclusion of the results of quality assurance review procedures, which is the most unique aspect of the web portal and makes the findings of quality assurance more accessible to society as a whole. This is important bearing in mind that, up until now, these results have mainly been handled within the institutional context of the universities.

The indicators provided by the portal on each course include data on new entry students, trends in the admission grades, the first year credit-pass rate, the number of graduates and the percentage of ex-alumni who would retake the same degree. These indicators, together with the rest of the information on the web portal (description, results of quality assurance), make it a very useful tool, particularly for prospective students who have to decide on a particular undergraduate or Master's programme, as well as for their families who are often involved in their choice of selecting a degree course. Elements that have become commonplace for students when choosing an undergraduate course are, according to priorities that will vary among students, the programme content, the cost/fees (whether it is publicly funded or not), location (the implications of the expense of studying a long way from home), the admission grade, job and professional opportunities and the standing of a given programme or university compared to others.

Various aspects on the EUC can be accessed in such a way as to not only objectify certain data (for example, to compare how well regarded a degree is with its actual usefulness in terms of graduate employment outcomes, or reviews it has undergone for the purposes of quality assurance), but also to be able to easily compare the data on different degree courses. This is the main contribution that the web portal can make to prospective students and their decision about which course to take, with the more general aspects of each degree programme being set out on equal terms.

For other users, the EUC web portal can be seen more as a complementary tool for consulting certain data of interest or any doubts they may have, for example, in the case of students taking a Bachelor's degree, graduates and also employers. University quality units have the WINDDAT indicator website to make comparisons, certain data, although the information provided for users there is not particularly accessible or aggregated.

Considering that the main interest in the EUC portal will be for prospective students, and having assessed all the information that it already provides, certain improvements are suggested here to enhance its usefulness for such users.

Firstly, an indicator with the percentage of Catalan, Spanish and third languages used in the teaching of the degree programme would be very useful. Bearing in mind the importance of a third language in present-day society, this could be an aspect that encourages a prospective student to choose a university that offers this. In cases where placement (work experience) is not compulsory, it would also be very interesting to show the percentage of students who are doing placements. In addition, other more general data on each institution, and not just on a specific degree course, could be provided to help foster a wider view of life at university, over and above the fact of students just receiving an educational process.

Other data that is provided will probably not be that useful for choosing a particular degree course, for example, new students according to gender. Although it is of social relevance, this indicator is not expected to have any influence on the choice of a degree course and students will be expected make their choice according to preference, regardless of any gender bias in the enrolment rate.

When talking about figures and degree courses, it is very important to take into account the opinions of students. This is very much taken into account in the EUC content, although we believe that as a tool it would be much more useful, and also more accessible for students already on a course, for the data from the surveys on teaching carried out in all universities at the end of each term and/or academic year to appear. It shouldn't be too complicated for such data to be provided and this would address one of the general problems in all universities, i.e. the low response rate to surveys on teaching. The inclusion of these figures would provide a good opportunity to analyse what is going on with the teaching surveys and why students do not take part in them. In this regard, a study could be carried out by AQU Catalunya and students at Catalan universities to find ways of improving the surveys and their effectiveness in the quality enhancement of teaching in higher education institutions. The availability of such data provided by the students themselves would certainly be of assistance to prospective students when deciding on a specific course at a particular university.

As regards the information on a given degree course and relevant QA procedures, another clear enhancement would be for the accreditation report on the site visit to appear, instead of the final review report. AQU Catalunya has confirmed that these will be published in the faculties/reports section of the Agency's website in August; this will enable more in-depth assessments to be made, with more specific information, and bring this practice in line with that of other European countries. The possible reluctance of universities at the beginning of this entire process is understandable, but in the long term both the universities and society as a whole will benefit from this exercise in transparency. In terms of making the web portal as flexible and easy as possible to browse, it might do well for the site visit accreditation report to be accessible on the same page as the data on the degree, not just on the faculty's page.

Although the web portal represents a valuable contribution, and it can become even more so with further improvements together with the enhancements proposed here, it can never become really meaningful unless it actually reaches society. This means, on the one hand, society knowing about it and using it and, on the other, an understanding of the language used in matters of quality on the part of the users. As regards the first of these challenges, an information campaign is necessary. Various proposals along these lines include promoting links to the EUC web portal from other student-oriented websites that publish information on Bachelor and Master's degrees, publicising the tool in secondary schools, and its presentation at the annual Education Fair and other similar events. And last, but not least, the latter of the two challenges, educational action of a much more progressive and long-term nature is required.

This article tables various different aspects concerning the EUC web portal from the perspective of students. It starts out by questioning whether the portal will be able to make information summarised in the form of indicators and the results of quality assurance relating to university degree courses available to society in a way that is easy to access and understand. Without seeking to give any kind of absolute answer to this, our analysis leads us to believe that the web portal does have the potential to achieve this end, although it still has a long way to go and faces many challenges, several of which are mentioned above. It will therefore take some time to see whether the EUC web portal becomes consolidated as a useful tool and resource that helps individual prospective students to successfully navigate their own way through the higher education system in Catalonia.


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