Where Has Ethical Marketing Gone?
Advertising, hyping, lobbying, direct mailing, corporate relating, media training, and issue managing are all the rage at Australian 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 skeptic. I wrote about shonky contractors who never completed their work, “quack” doctors, and insurance companies who avoided paying claims.
I wrote about scam artists who prey on the elderly, and my favorite topic, unscrupulous real estate agents who made outrageous claims to sell timeshare properties.
On one public holiday, I rang every travellers’ check company in Sydney. (Remember travellers’ cheques?) I pretended to have lost my checks and asked for an instant replacement.
Every travellers’ check 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’ check business.
A naïve observer thinks that “customer service” should also determine the status of universities might. Institutions that best meet students’ needs should prosper; others should wither away. Someday this will be true, but not yet.
Spin, exaggerate, or lie?
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.”
People walk past signage for Australian universities in Melbourne’s central business district in Melbourne, Australia, on June 10, 2020. (William West/AFP via Getty Images)
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 Australian 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.
What of the Students?
This is deeply unfair. Students with inside knowledge knowing they will be admitted despite not meeting the advertised standards. In contrast, students whose parents and school counselors 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 night. Students who were told their health course met professional registration requirements when it did not sued their university for misrepresentation and won. This may be only the beginning of a trend toward greater accountability. As the night follows day, universities will be called upon to justify their claims.
Don’t get me wrong; I am not against publicity or public relations. Marketing and advertising are important ways to educate the public. The more information available to them, the more sophisticated student consumers will become.
University guides and league tables, despite their many flaws and exaggerations, are ways of creating educated consumers who can make informed choices. It would be wrong to try to curb university publicity machines. What we should do is try to make them more honest.
It is worth thinking about a code of ethics for university publicity. The code need not be elaborate or deeply philosophical but should contain a commitment to deal fairly and honestly with the public. Universities should eschew misleading or exaggerated claims and they should take care not to injure the reputation of other institutions. Finally, university public relations should be sensitive to the needs and values of applicants from non-traditional backgrounds.
Students and their parents need fair, honest, and accurate information about universities. It is up to those who work in universities to ensure they get it.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz has served as vice chancellor of Australia’s Macquarie University, Murdoch University, and the UK’s Brunel University. He has advised and chaired numerous education bodies including the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). As an academic, Schwartz’s research spans clinical psychology, psychiatry, and public health—he has also published over 100 articles in scientific journals and 13 books.