This involves what exactly?

Amid the marketing puffery and opaque jargon, many prospectuses fail to explain what a course is really about, students complain. Matthew Reisz looks over the good, the bad and the flannel

February 26, 2009

Anyone leafing through brochures for a holiday in the Caribbean soon suffers from "not another tropical paradise" syndrome. Much the same criticism is often made of university prospectuses - they are all much of a muchness and too good to be true.

"The prospectus is a bit like a holiday brochure," one student told Times Higher Education last year, when the Government sought the views of "student juries" across the UK. "It makes everything sound exciting."

This can be misleading. Research by the Higher Education Policy Institute has identified significant dissatisfaction among overseas students because of "facilities not matching those described in the prospectus".

To take just one example, the opening page of one 2009 prospectus speaks of "a world-class educational environment ... at the leading edge of so many areas of research" and "the forefront of educational innovation".

As part of this "academic excellence", teaching "takes place in state-of-the-art learning facilities". Furthermore, if you choose to study there, "you can unlock your potential and become the best that you can be".

With so many institutions making similar claims, is it any wonder that applicants become dazed and confused?

But what if one drills down a bit further to the descriptions of specific courses? These are, in a sense, marketing documents. A sixth-former looking to study architecture or biochemistry may like the sound of the universities of Aberdeen, Bangor and Chichester, but ultimately the choice comes down to a particular course in a particular place. So do the descriptions offer enough detail and spell out how one pharmacy or physics degree differs from another?

Often, the answer appears to be "no". The first annual report by the National Student Forum, released last year, complained that it could be difficult for prospective students to get "a reasonable sense of what it will feel like to study subject X at university Y" because "universities and colleges do not always provide enough detail about course content, teaching and assessment methods".

It also calls for a "one-stop shop" to bring together all the information that is or should be available in prospectuses and online, ideally in a standard format, to facilitate comparisons. In response, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is investigating the possibility of creating an information, advice and guidance portal to act as a first port of call.

Meanwhile, author Brian Heap brings some of the information together in his book, Choosing Your Degree Course & University, which is now in its 11th edition. This lists all the places where one can study everything from astrophysics to American studies and strives to show how courses differ.

Some useful details, Heap says, are often hard to access. While "some university websites even give the Australian and Canadian qualifications required", others are "vague about preferred A levels and whether general studies and critical-thinking qualifications are acceptable. Few say if an Advanced Diploma or the Cambridge Pre-U is adequate."

More generally, Heap is sceptical about how far some universities have thought through what makes their courses distinctive.

"When I ask staff what they think is significant about their course, they often talk about research results or league tables, which are not necessarily crucial for school-leavers."

Broadly speaking, there are two dangers in producing course descriptions. One is offering content that is too marketing-led. The other is providing copy written by specialists who baffle potential applicants or drown them in jargon.

Although things have improved over the years, says Heap, "some departments still present information in a way that is too boring or unintelligible. I remember a course description at one university where the first sentence had 120 words and the next 80. This reflects the remote attitude of some admissions tutors."

Yet Heap also sees problems when "admissions tutors and departmental staff are less involved in marketing courses - and the descriptions are written by people who don't know the details".

Anyone who sits down and reads a number of course descriptions soon discovers examples of both the faults Heap identifies. Some are unnecessarily obscure and feel like overhearing a rarefied specialist discussion.

For example, one prospectus' description of a joint course in archaeology and anthropology acknowledges that the two subjects have usually been taught separately. But it goes on to argue that "recent developments ... make this division look increasingly restrictive. Archaeology is progressively more interested in ideas about society, while anthropology today looks at the past as comfortably as it has looked at the present. This degree scheme offers an innovative opportunity to take part in this convergence between the two disciplines."

No doubt this reflects an important debate among experts, but it must be pretty alienating for a school-leaver with limited knowledge of either subject who has never questioned the standard dictionary distinction. And do students really embark on a degree to take part in disciplinary convergence?

Others seem to be written by experts so enthused by their subjects that they fall back on jargon or make grandiose claims.

Social policy at one university is "an exciting and vibrant subject (that) holds the big questions and small details of our lives in one frame". Cultural studies "offers an introduction to ways of thinking about the world we live in, its formative histories and changing formations, the languages of texts, images, bodies, technologies, spaces and power, the possibilities for radical change and the constraints and failures of modernity".

The course is said to offer broad personal as well as intellectual benefits: "It will give you tools to think with and perspectives through which to reconsider yourself and yourselves. It will help and encourage you to become a critically aware person and citizen."

The American Psychoanalytic Association recently issued a report on course descriptions that used the discipline's concepts and noted that they, as practising professionals, often found the "postmodern theorising" and phrases such as "global psychoanalytic subjectivities" virtually incomprehensible.

One can only pity the poor applicants. What does it say about a university if it makes the right noises about widening access but fills its prospectus with course descriptions that blind readers with specialist jargon?

But what happens at the other end of the spectrum, when course descriptions are taken out of the hands of departments and largely written by marketing teams?

It shouldn't be too difficult. Many universities come up with lively and enticing descriptions of particular subjects, as the University of Portsmouth demonstrates.

"No definition of psychology can capture just how varied and exciting it is," its prospectus says. "Forensic psychologists might focus on eyewitnesses or offender profiling; a developmental psychologist might study anything from shyness in babies to children's learning of number skills; and a social psychologist might be interested in the processes involved in interpersonal attraction."

This is perfectly factual and manages to sell the subject without any flannel.

It is also possible to set out what makes a particular university's offering in a popular subject distinctive and attractive.

"Our history degrees," Portsmouth's prospectus tells us, "focus on social and cultural changes in Europe between 1450 and 1990 and the experiences and perceptions of ordinary people in this period."

A single sentence makes clear roughly what is included - and, implicitly, what is not.

Claire Brookes, head of corporate communications at Portsmouth, says the university adopts a customer focus, drawing on input from sixth-formers and current undergraduates, and puts the stress on "what prospective students need to know". Although academics produce the initial copy, her team considers the tone, language and amount of information supplied, and will often negotiate significant changes.

But this high standard is far from universal. Just as prospectuses vary greatly in their design and production values, so do course descriptions. Selling points are often vague and generic rather than concrete and specific. Far too many degrees are said to offer "an exciting, challenging and stimulating experience for all" or "an individual and unique experience ... (in) a friendly and supportive learning environment, very much on a human scale".

Students are told they will be taught by people who are "leading experts in their field", "really up to date with what's going on in practice", or, reassuringly, "really know what they're talking about". One course promises "an extremely well-qualified (but unnamed) team of tutors, whose work has been recognised nationally and internationally". Another seeks vicarious prestige by referring to "academic staff (who) have worked or studied at some of the world's leading universities".

And what can students hope to get out of the courses? The answers can seem hopelessly generalised, tentative or implausible:

"Graduates will be equipped with the skills necessary to be highly employable communicators in a wide variety of fields."

"This programme is designed to develop proactive graduates who will be equipped to gain appropriate and rewarding employment and make an immediate and ongoing contribution within the workplace."

"You'll develop the practical skills ... you'll need to get your career off to a great start."

Can it really be true that "whatever course your life takes after graduation, a degree in media studies is likely to be of relevance to your future career"? A course in ancient history may well promote "the development of critical, analytical and problem-solving skills" and "the development of skills in oral and written communication", but it hardly sounds like the most straightforward way of acquiring them.

Even less helpful is the claim that a particular course offers an ideal route to just about any career except juggling or dentistry.

"A degree in anthropology is invaluable in many professions: business, industry, tourism, communication, academic research, caring professions, aid and development," says one course description.

Such vague gesturing is a world away from the detailed information that would give sixth-formers a realistic sense of the opportunities or returns they might expect from their significant investment in a course. Few students can afford to ignore these financial factors.

Let us return to the views of the consumers themselves. When Maeve Sherlock, chair of the NSF, presented the forum's annual report to the Government last October, she said the NSF had made a conscious decision to focus on two issues: information, advice and guidance; and student finance.

"At our first meeting, we discussed how students go about deciding what to study and where to study it. For all the huge amount of information out there, it can be very hard to navigate your way around it, especially if you're not surrounded by people who know how the system works.

"Even if you go to university websites directly, what you find varies a lot. Some give lots of information; others only fairly vague descriptions. These days it's a big decision to decide to invest the time and money needed to come to university. So it's important to know not just what your course is called but what it will involve - not just that it's a degree in politics, but what aspects will you study? How much contact time is there? How is it assessed?"

In Sherlock's case, she had decided she wanted to study theology and googled the phrase "theology UK university".

What might she find if she did that today? She might, for example, have reached the website for the University of Wales, Lampeter. As in its prospectus, the section for the department of theology and religious studies includes a quote from Professor Ninian Smart, "one of the greatest modern authorities on the study of religion".

The longer quote published online refers to Lampeter's "rich and vigorous programme devoted to the study of religion. You cannot do better in Britain in the field than here. Strong in Islamic studies, in Judaism, in Christianity, it also shines in Buddhism, the Hindu and the Chinese traditions. People from the whole world meet in the heart of Wales."

This is a striking commendation and Smart is indeed a major figure - but he died in early 2001, aged 74. Did he make that comment 10, 20 or even 30 years ago? Potential applicants should be told.

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