'Very misleading' loan terms: Willetts blames the advertisers

Coalition follows PR advice over fees and gets caught in a language trap. Simon Baker reports

June 16, 2011



Credit: Eleanor Bentall/Corbis
Semantic exercise: Minister David Willetts cited expert opinion on the need to use arguably 'misleading' terms


Ministers chose to use terms such as "fees" and "loans" in the public relations campaign for the new student finance arrangements despite the terms being "very misleading" because advertising experts warned that they would look like "shifty politicians" if they did not.

That was the explanation offered by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who said during a debate at the start of Universities Week on 13 June that the government and the sector were "trapped" in language that did not describe the financial reality.

Mr Willetts said that although the system of income-contingent loans repaid by graduates bore little resemblance to credit-card debt, advertising agencies had warned the coalition against avoiding language that had become "ubiquitous".

"Their advice was...if you don't use the language of fees and loans, it looks like a bunch of shifty politicians who are not willing to use the same language everyone else uses," Mr Willetts said.

"So our advice from the experts was that even though it may be very misleading, that is now the common language."

The minister was responding to a question from Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, who asked why the government did not simply rebrand the system if it "walks like a tax and acts like a tax".

Her point was echoed by fellow panellist Martin Lewis, founder of the Money Saving Expert website, and audience member Simon Hughes, the government's access advocate, who both said that the language needed to change.

Mr Willetts said that although the system had the "best features" of a graduate tax, the "crucial distinction" was that the government was entering into a "contract" with students and could recoup money even from graduates who reside and pay tax in countries other than the UK.

However, he added: "We all feel incredibly frustrated that we are trapped in a language that does not represent the underlying financial reality."

Mr Lewis argued that parents would have reacted differently had the system been described as a tax and would be less inclined to take unnecessary measures such as helping to pay children's tuition fees up front.

The debate in London - titled "More than just fees: Communicating student finance and the wider benefits of university" - also heard confirmation that confusion about the system was affecting applicants who will start university this autumn.

Tracey Lancaster, chair of the Universities' Marketing Forum and director of external relations at the University of Birmingham, said that some applicants for 2011-12 entry wrongly believed their fees would rise to the higher level in 2012.

"On that basis alone, I would suggest that politics is indeed getting in the way of the message," she said.

The debate followed the release of a poll for Universities Week that indicated that a third of parents with children aged between 13 and 21 had "little or no understanding" of the new tuition-fees system for England and Wales.

Dame Jane Roberts, chair of pressure group Parenting UK, said parents were "baffled" by the new arrangements.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 10 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

Elly Walton illustration (7 July 2016)

Researchers in the liberal arts seem to have made it their mission to communicate in the most obscure fashion, says Zachary Foster

Daniel Mitchell illustration (14 July 2016)

Frank Furedi says the mournful mood on campus and the disparagement and silencing of Leave supporters betray an isolated scholarly class

Michael Parkin illustration (7 July 2016)

Rising immigration-related costs and lack of employer support send an unwelcoming message to international staff, says Jason Danely

Female Brazilian football/soccer fan celebrating with flag of Brazil, Best universities in Latin America

Brazil leads Times Higher Education’s debut ranking of the top universities in Latin America

People walk past second hand books for sale

Shift may be evidence that researchers feel they are increasingly judged on citations and journal impact factors