False university advertising has real consequences

By Anna Ley

In the past few weeks, six universities have been cautioned against the promotion of misleading claims when marketing their institutions to prospective students. Falmouth University’s claim to be the ‘UK’s number one creative university’ was vetoed, while Leicester can no longer extol its virtues as a ‘top one per cent world university’.

The need for growing restraints on marketing underlines a significant development in recent years: that is, the proliferation of rankings and statistics that were once deemed prejudiced and unscientific, but now litter the prospectuses of educational institutions at all levels. But what are the consequences of this increasingly commercialised education system?

Rankings once deemed prejudiced now litter university prospectuses

Education has long been marketed off as merchandise alongside the many other commodities of capitalism – but this change is corrosive to students’ learning.

Baroness Kennedy, the principal of Oxford’s Mansfield College, suggests that students should never be seen as ‘cash cows, delivering something’, and that universities should not ‘spend more time on maximising revenues than we do on bringing students together’. Yet, in universities, as profitability eclipses the quality of education, there remains a dangerous trend of moving away from prioritising the student.

Reduced to a mere rank – yet another alienated statistic of cultural capitalism – students easily become estranged from such an education apparatus, and seek a quick scapegoat. ‘Price-tagging’ education could in fact be pivotal to students’ sense of worth. Students begin to feel devalued, believing that they’re being encouraged to do well to improve the school’s stature versus competitors, and not because of a genuine desire for them to personally succeed. This belief can be dangerously demotivating, because it causes individuals to externalise blame for poor performance by attributing it to teachers who just ‘don’t care’ rather than failures within their own efforts.

Even so, the enthusiasm of the most eager of teachers is declining under the intense pressure to meet artificial quotas on student satisfaction or attainment. Surely the raison d’être of teaching is the enlightenment and encouragement of students’ intellectual curiosity? The movement from a student-focused system to one ruled by revenue will therefore continue to alienate both students and teachers alike.

Individuals externalise blame for poor performance, attributing it to teachers

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, opines that there is a ‘touch of the Wild West’ about the current climate of education advertisement. Dense with assertions of ‘number one’ for subjects, student experience and job prospects, this market sees schools and universities stand face to face, fighting for the first draw to pry parental choice. It is right that institutions like the University of West London are slapped down when positing ambiguous or misleading statistics, such as its claim to be ‘London’s top modern university’. These claims constrict the school down to one miniscule descriptor, all the while giving cause to forget the true reason it exists: the student.

Sadly, these criticisms are only too justified in my personal experience as a student at Durham University. Durham: an institution with one of the highest college accommodation charges, and one that views excellent teaching scores under the most recent TEF assessments as simply another opportunity to raise tuition fees.

The danger of such continuous rises is that eventually only the wealthiest among us will be able to achieve a place at the most highly regarded teaching institutions, rather than, perhaps, the most deserving. The commodification of tuition will therefore only perpetuate the privilege that already pervades many employment sectors, like the civil service and the justice system.

Universities often forget why they exist: for the student

If, like me, you are blessed with superbly supportive parents who would not allow financial concerns to forestall your pursuit of the perfect course, then rather than escaping the currents of capitalism, you are in fact indirectly encouraging an education system that is more exclusive than ‘encompassing’. For students whose financial circumstances are less fortunate, there is the danger of falling through the cracks altogether, and missing out on the education that you most desire and would benefit from most.

To privatise education is to commodify knowledge. But knowledge is not a right that should be restricted by governments or universities; these institutions should instead encourage everyone in its pursuit. Genuine education is of much greater value than any price tag or statistical claim. The commodification of tuition itself, as well as the hyper-marketing of the university experience, are deeply harmful. Finances should never be a barrier to the pursuit of knowledge.

Photograph: University of Central Arkansas via Flickr and Creative Commons 

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One Response

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  1. John Bradley
    Jan 02, 2018 - 02:49 PM

    An excellent article. Thank you. You may be interested to look at a paper I wrote a few years ago that may have played a part in the Advertising Standards Authority finally looking at this area – which they refused to do a few years ago.

    https://ojs.unisa.edu.au/index.php/IJEI/article/view/894/637

    and some of the responses at the time:

    https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/rosy-prospectuses-misleading-students/2010522.article

    https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/are-questionable-marketing-claims-slipping-past-the-watchdogs/2010696.article

    Best wishes,

    Dr John Bradley

    Reply

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