University prospectuses mislead students
Rapidly growing economies, a large youth population and rapid expansion of the higher education sector has led to increased competition and greater focus on marketing for many universities. This has also led to concerns that prospective students are not getting the relevant and unbiased information they need before deciding where to study.
An analysis of university prospectuses reveals that some universities’ claims may be spurious, misleading and downright fictitious. These universities deploy selective data, flatter comparison and sometimes even outright falsehoods in their prospectuses to exaggerate their character or achievements. They attempt to bend the facts to a breaking point to appeal to applicants.
There are a number of clearly misleading claims in several university information materials. One such a claim is that of an international university. Today, any university can decide to name itself “international” and so-called international universities are mushrooming.
This is a serious issue affecting the destiny of thousands of students every year who believe they are entering a truly international university. They are many times unaware of what these universities mean with being international. Is it only a matter of having English as the language of instruction? Or does a university become international just by having one or two Westerners nicely featured in the prospectuses?
Being an international university means putting in place processes that help universities improve the quality of their education, research and services to society. It is a long journey of quality development that requires lots of hard work, dedicated time and resources. It is nothing a new university can just be born with.
There are also significant gaps in many cases in relation to, for example, qualification levels of lecturers, specific long-term prospects, such as future income and employment that result from choice of university.
An international university applies best international practices in governance, in teaching and learning approaches, in intercultural collaborative research and development (R&D)and in international exchange of ideas and experiences. Truly international universities are investing in recruiting international staff and students and in collaborative research with two or more countries.
International content and perspective, cross-cultural collaboration with global perspective brought in by international staff and students will also help raise international awareness of students and encourage them to think outside their own narrow frames of references.
The sad story of misleading students doesn’t end here. In a recent case, a new private Indonesian university boasted on social media that one of its study programs was listed as one of the “five top bachelor degrees in world”. The university failed to inform the public that the referred source of information came from a biased source. The recent settlement of US$25 million by Trump University with the students it cheated is another example.
It is not uncommon for universities to use their students and staff to make nice and supportive statements in their information material. These students and staff are in a dependency situation and may not be able to maintain an unbiased approach when being used as marketing tools for their universities.
With students consuming increasing amounts of marketing materials when choosing a university, it is more important than ever that they have accurate information. University information materials are different and may not be reviewed critically because universities are seen as trustworthy scholarly places, where, if they give out information, it will be facts.
Because choosing a university is so important to students and because universities should aspire to high ethical and scholarly standards, these issues are very serious. Universities and their people need to be responsible about what they say, just as with an academic publication.
To protect prospective students, prospectuses and all other information materials, including social media-based information, should be critically checked by the National Accreditation Agency for Higher Education on a regular basis. The agency should not allow the use of the term “international university/institute” without a proper assessment.
Universities should be asked to first explain what they mean by being international and to demonstrate how by being so-called international their overall quality will be enhanced. The assessment instrument should include analysis of key parameters such as percentage of international staff, percentage of international students, commitment to international research, extent of university/institute publications with coauthors from two or more countries, quality of teaching and learning in terms of global perspective/global quality standard, quality of university administration in terms of applying best international practices, quality of international student services and support, quality of teaching and learning facilities, and international presence of the university at large, etc.
In conclusion, universities should not fall into the temptation to use seemingly attractive but vague terms, but focus on the quality of what they are doing and what they are offering. Our universities should have higher ethical standards than marketing in general. They offer an expensive product that cannot be tried before being bought. They are appealing to a “potentially vulnerable group”; and their “status and reputation in society” is based on “high standards of scholarship.”
They should provide prospective students with factual information about their offerings and the true status and quality of their programs. Failing in these responsibilities is a serious misconduct, risking not only the public trust in universities but also the future of millions of students worldwide. The writer was president of Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand, president of Boras University in Sweden and vice president of Chalmers University of Technology of Sweden. He is a professor in chemical engineering from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.