Advertising, hyping, lobbying, direct mailing, corporate relating, media training, and issue managing are all the rage at universities, and I am as guilty as anyone. Bless me, father, for I too have "spinned".
I should have known better. You see, in another life, I fancied myself a budding investigative journalist. To the extent that I had any journalistic slant, I guess you could say I was the resident sceptic. I wrote about shonky contractors who never completed their work, "quack" doctors, and insurance companies who avoided paying claims (like the old T and G insurance company, known to me as the "Try and Get It").
I wrote about scam artists who prey on the elderly, and my favourite topic, unscrupulous real estate agents who made outrageous claims to sell timeshare properties. (Quote from one article: "You can engrave the ethical code of timeshare salespeople on the head of a pin and still have room for the Lord's Prayer.")
On one public holiday, I rang every travellers' cheque company in Sydney. (Remember travellers' cheques?) I pretended to have lost my cheques and asked for an instant replacement.
Every travellers' cheque provider advertised that they would promptly replace lost cheques. But, on that holiday, only one, American Express, lived up to its promise. One famous company did not bother to answer the telephone while another told me to call back the next day. With such a high level of customer service, it is not surprising that American Express dominated the travellers' cheque business.
A naïve observer might think that "customer service" should also determine the status of universities. Institutions that best meet students' needs should prosper; others should wither away. Someday this will be true, but not yet. The student market for higher education remains relatively unsophisticated. Students choose universities because of perceived prestige, league table rankings, location, the opinions of friends, and the entreaties of spin: "learn for life," "a university for the real world," "tomorrow's leaders today". What do these slogans mean? Not a thing. As Goethe says in Faust: "When ideas fail, words come in very handy."
It is only a matter of time before crusading journalists begin looking closely at the spin and hype emanating from universities. They may be surprised by what they find.
I was in Singapore reading the local paper, The Straits Times. There, on page four were advertisements placed by three different Australian universities. Each claimed to possess, and I quote, "Australia's number one business school." I guess the editorial staff found it amusing to juxtapose these advertisements. Just another example of why we should never confuse Asian politeness with gullibility.
Claiming to be "Number 1" is just puffery. But, some university claims go beyond puffery and border on deception. Universities with miserable employment records routinely market their courses as good preparation for a career. Third-world student accommodation is advertised as "comfortable" or if it is really awful, "quaint." Courses in technical areas such as radio and television are often taught with outmoded equipment, but no one bothers to warn students.
Even league tables are manipulable. There are hundreds of potential performance indicators. Every university should be able to find a measure on which their institution shines (cleanest loos, best car-parking, use your imagination).
Many universities exaggerate their entry requirements to appear more selective than they actually are. In some courses, almost half of successful applicants fail to meet the advertised entry requirements. This is deeply unfair. Students with inside knowledge know they will be admitted despite not meeting the advertised standards. In contrast, students whose parents and school counsellors are unfamiliar with universities may be deterred from applying because they believe the published entry requirements rule them out.
Alas, the hour of accountability is nigh. Students, who were told their health course met professional registration requirements when it did not, sued their university for misrepresentation and won. This may is only the beginning of a trend toward greater accountability. As the night follows day, universities will be called upon to justify their claims.