It has a reputation for its frankness, and now Which? the consumer rights magazine is planning, for the first time in its history, an authoritative guide to British universities, writes Daniel Boffey at the Guardian.
It plans to offer advice on whether a student on a particular course at a particular institution will, "at the end of it be better placed to get a job to make it worthwhile", according to Jenny Allen, the Which? head of public services.
It will provide comparative information on locations, teaching standards and the quality of a university's research.
The move comes as students are set to face paying huge fees for three-year degree courses, turning the choice of university (or no university at all) into one of the biggest financial decisions many people will make in their lives, as reported at Education News earlier this year.
Allen said Which? had spotted that careers services in schools were under financial pressure and that there was now a gap in the market for trusted advice.
"What we are acutely aware of is that people are spending – or getting into debt – to the tune of £27,000 and are definitely thinking about what the benefit is going to be at the end of it, as much as the experience. Yes, people do want to go to university to have a great education and a life experience, but they also want some kind of reassurance that at the end of it they will be better placed to get a job to make it worthwhile."
Which? plans to launch its guide in time for September 2012 and is being backed by the universities minister, David Willetts.
The development is likely to cause concern among academics, who have already voiced fears over valuing degrees in monetary terms. The vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, expressed a prescient fear that "purer disciplines" – for example medieval literature, philosophy and the classics – were in danger of losing out under the new system, which will prioritize and encouraged students to look towards future financial rewards.
Nottingham University registrar Paul Greatrix told the newspaper that choosing a university was "much more subtle than buying a car".
"There are so many more complications in choosing a degree, and you have to be the active participant in the process," he said. "[But] we [already] have a ton of education out there about the merits and demerits of particular courses and institutions and it is not helping to inform decision-making."
"The government is committed to ensuring public data is more easily accessible to students and their parents. We want them to have a broader choice of information and we welcome the interest of organizations like Which? in supplying this."