Who needs a prospectus when you can google before you go?

March 2, 2007

Remember the old days when prospective students chose where to study based on little more than a campus tour, a flick through the prospectus and perhaps, most decisively, a family recommendation?

No more. In an age of user-generated websites, blogs and online message boards, universities can find it impossible to control what is being said about them.

Prospective students google first and visit second, and bad publicity, truthful or not, can affect the carefully marketed reputation of even big institutions.

Individual incidents can be magnified in cyberspace. For example, do a google search for School of Oriental and Aftican Studies in London, and one of the first websites listed questions its handling of the debacle involing postgraduate Nasser Amin. The student came under fire in the media over a student newspaper article defending the right of Palestinians to violent resistance aginst Israel, an incident the university would probably rather forget.

And the Wikipedia entry on Bedfordshire University has become something of a battleground between the institution and a disgruntled former staff member, resulting in a string of edits and re-edits.

For Naufel Vilcassim, professor of marketing at the London Business School, the impact of such web coverage depends on the standing of the institution.

"If a school is by other indicators ranked well, it probably won't affect prospective students' decisions," he said.

"For middle-ranking institutions it can be hard to over-come."

Where once students were limited to official newspaper league tables, there are now many university guides online, ranking institutions by different criteria: women-men ratio, cheapest booze, even the most sporty - the Royal Veterinary College, Stirling University and Loughborough University respectively.

Blogs, which may be read by only a handful of people, can still appear in search engines and give a skewed impression.

The website williseemy tutor. com provoked anger among academics for using a rough-and-ready ranking system of staff-student ratios.

Moreover, prospective students often use message boards to ask for recommendations for a particular course. The responses, while seldom revealing the author's bias or personal dislikes, are frequently critical and sometimes inaccurate.

Yet, because of their personal nature and the feeling of "connecting" with authentic users of an institution, responses on such message boards can dissuade students from opting for particular courses.

Universities spend large sums presenting their best image, but the web can overturn that in a moment. Indeed, students may often feel that information available online is more accurate because it is less couched in marketing-speak.

One way institutions have found to accommodate such dissent is by offering students the chance to put their blogs on the university servers.

But this might lead savvy surfers to think the comments have been vetted by the institution.

"It's a risk," Dr Vilcassim said. "But it gives them a chance to respond credibly to the criticism and gives universities some control over the medium."

Ultimately, the web is a forum university marketing departments must watch closely.

One comment from a university guide website sums up why: "I was quite convinced to come to this uni, however, I have read the worst review of it on ciao.co.uk [a shopping site]. Everything about it has put me off."

5 things you didn't know about uk universities and probably shouldn't believe

The oatcakes at Staffordshire University are far superior to others in the region. "Keele has nothing on us!"

Source: Princess Alliyah at studentuk.com

Rent is cheap at Liverpool University, if "you don't mind being burgled three times a year" and "can tolerate your landlord setting fire to the house occasionally".

Source: Wookie at studentuk.com

Kent, Strathclyde and East Anglia universities are among the few in the country not to have a Christian Union student society.

Source: Push online guide

Bradford, Cambridge and Greenwich universities are three of ten English institutions that have Irish student societies.

Source: Push online guide

Why spend millions on marketing when one line will do? "GILF Hunter" sells Wolverhampton University with: "If ur a nerd go else where, if ur a legend u'll fit in well."

Source: unofficial-guides.com

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