Uni­ver­si­ties now sell them­selves – like any busi­ness

The Observer - - NEWS -

When some­thing is turned into a com­mod­ity, should any­one be sur­prised when it starts to be­have like one, even to the point of ex­ag­ger­a­tion in its mar­ket­ing?

Some Bri­tish uni­ver­si­ties, to be named by the Ad­ver­tis­ing Stan­dards Au­thor­ity (ASA) in a clam­p­down this week, have been found to be in breach of ad­ver­tis­ing codes by mak­ing claims that weren’t wholly backed by ev­i­dence.

These in­clude the Univer­sity of Read­ing, which was in­structed to stop claim­ing on­line that it was in the top 1% of global in­sti­tu­tions. This as­ser­tion was ex­trap­o­lated from rank­ings among Bri­tain’s top 200 uni­ver­si­ties. Other uni­ver­si­ties, such as Ex­eter, Southamp­ton and Le­ices­ter, have also been pro­mot­ing them­selves as be­ing in the top 1% glob­ally, based on var­i­ous rank­ing sys­tems.

Then Liver­pool John Moores Univer­sity failed to make it clear that its “univer­sity of the year” claim was a re­gional north­ern ti­tle. The Univer­sity of Bed­ford­shire claimed to pro­vide gold stan­dard teach­ing when its last rat­ing was sil­ver. ASA will also be ask­ing for proof for claims made by uni­ver­si­ties about cour­ses, which could lead to them be­ing branded “mis­lead­ing” and fined.

Of course, uni­ver­si­ties shouldn’t make false claims, es­pe­cially as it costs so much to at­tend them these days. How­ever, in some cases, it seems to be less about out­right ly­ing than an at­tempt to, er, lead with the pos­i­tive and ob­scure the neg­a­tive. Most of all, it seems to be about com­pet­ing pet­ing and not just for the sport rt of it ei­ther, rather, for sur­vival. val.

It’s no se­cret that uni­ver­si­ties have been placed un­der ex­treme pres­sure to at­tract stu­dents – their very fu­tures de­pend on get­ting “bums on seats”. These days, young Bri­tish peo­ple have to think se­ri­ously about whether it’s worth it, fi­nan­cially, to spend tens of thou­sands ds of pounds ob­tain­ing a de­gree. It’s also a time when over­seas ap­pli­ca­tions (a sig­nif­i­cant source of rev­enue for Bri­tish uni­ver­si­ties) look set to be af­fected by the chaos of Brexit. And yet peo­ple won­der why be­lea­guered Bri­tish uni­ver­si­ties re­sort to put­ting too much spin into their mar­ket­ing.

There ap­pear to be two lev­els at work here. There’s the fact that cer­tain uni­ver­si­ties have mis­led the pub­lic and this must stop. Then there’s less ob­vi­ous stuff, such as the bizarre dis­con­nect form­ing be­tween how many peo­ple still per­ceive higher ed­u­ca­tion – as rar­efied are­nas of study­ing ex­cel­lence – and what higher ed­u­ca­tion has be­come in re­cent times – a com­mod­ity to be bought, sam­pled, and, in­deed, com­plained about, no dif­fer­ent to any other.

When the fee in­creases first hit, a key con­cern was how stu­dents might end up be­hav­ing – how they would view them­selves pri­mar­ily as clients who were en­ti­tled to de­mand their money’s worth; even to ask for as­sur­ances about po­ten­tial ca­reer tra­jec­to­ries. How long be­fore a stu­dent sues a univer­sity when a de­gree fails to lead to the sparkling ca­reer they en­vis­aged? How long be­fore TripAd­vi­sor fea­tures de­gree cour­ses?

How­ever, it’s be­com­ing clear that there are also con­se­quences to uni­ver­si­ties be­ing forced to view them­selves as prod­ucts. Put into this con­text, any ad­ver­tis­ing hy­per­bole starts looking par for the course. Just as no one gets emo­tional about the claims of sham­poos or face creams, per­haps they need to stop be­ing sur­prised about uni­ver­si­ties promis­ing their own ver­sions of young, plump skin or thick, bouncy hair. h Per­haps Perh peo­ple need to ac­cept acce that, these days, uni­ver­si­ties uni are just prod­ucts pro scrab­bling to sur­vive su in a crowded mar­ket­place, with the ASA in­ter­ven­ing when nec­es­sary. ne If this sounds sad, sa that’s be­cause it is. is It would ap­pear, for the th time be­ing at least, that Bri­tain has got the univer­sity unive prospec­tuses it de­serves. deser

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