Leader: Beware the price of the hard sell

October 15, 2004

Organisations that sell cars, food and houses have long had to face up to the fact that the attractive documents they use to persuade customers to buy may turn round to bite them when things go wrong. Even companies that sell package holidays have cleaned up their act.

Universities do not sell degrees. University study is a collaboration to which the student has to bring talent and effort as well as money. But politicians and universities alike insist that a degree has financial value as well as being educationally good for the soul. Universities should not be surprised that students expect to get something akin to what was advertised from a university course.

Despite the spread of the internet, a university's prospectus is the main way in which people find out about its offerings. If it says that a course is accredited by a specific professional institute, or is likely to lead to a particular job, the would-be applicant is entitled to believe it. As we report this week, some universities have underestimated the commitments they are making with such assurances and are paying the price.

In the longer term, the new system for student finance will mean that a degree is one of the biggest commercial commitments a student ever makes, perhaps second only to a mortgage. This will put pressure on universities to ensure that their formal publications such as prospectuses are clear and fair and to make sure that staff do not make exaggerated promises in interviews or during the admissions process.

Some manufacturers, especially those of cigarettes and alcohol, have responded to the threat of legal action over the claims they make in advertising by replacing substantial content with slogans.

Universities cannot do this. Potential students are shopping in a crowded market and need real information to compare a chemistry degree at Leeds University with one at Birmingham University. The difficulty is in making this serious material attractive to teenagers, who make up most university applicants, without overdoing the superlatives or making too many promises.

Most university prospectuses succeed in this, but even a few bad ones damage the credibility of them all.

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