Full-throttle hype could crash: OIA

Watchdog says institutions may suffer for selling what they can't provide. David Matthews reports

October 27, 2011

The dangers of "overenthusiastic" marketing by universities will grow as higher tuition fees make students more likely to complain, according to the sector's student-complaints watchdog.

Rob Behrens, chief executive of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), warned of "ambulance-chasing" lawyers ready to help students take action against institutions that fail to live up to their promises.

"Intensive marketing, that which is not evidence-based...can and does get universities into trouble and is going to do so in a bigger way," he told an audience at the Effective Marketing in Higher Education conference in London last week.

This was increasingly likely to happen because students were being encouraged to think of themselves as consumers, he said.

"They will complain more because that is what consumers do."

Mr Behrens said that many student complaints were due to "overenthusiastic marketing" followed by a "failure to deliver what is marketed or in the prospectus".

He gave an example of a university that stated in its promotional material that engineering students would be able to design a racing car in the second year of their degree course, and then race it at the Brands Hatch circuit in Kent in their third year.

The institution failed to live up to its promise, Mr Behrens said. He described this outcome as "unacceptable".

In another example, a university stopped using a campus it had shared with another institution, and told students that they would "just have to come to a different city".

In both cases, complaints lodged by students with the OIA were upheld.

Mr Behrens said the incidents indicated that in some cases institutions had "set out to sell the university in whatever way they can".

"The effect is that marketing can diminish a university's reputation as well as enhance it," he warned. "There are ambulance-chasing firms of solicitors waiting to help students with their complaints."

In 2010, the OIA received 1,341 complaints, representing a rise of a third on the previous year. Twenty per cent of the complaints were partially or fully upheld.

Starting in 2012, the OIA will publish details of cases in which concerns by students are found to be justified or partially justified, including the names of the universities involved.

"The key issue for marketing is that universities are rigorous and professional in complying with our recommendations," Mr Behrens said.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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