Wikipedia is monitored for PR disasters

August 18, 2006

Wikipedia, the hugely popular internet encyclopaedia, is emerging as the latest battleground in the competitive world of university marketing, writes Phil Baty.

While anyone is free to edit and add to entries, the information provided can have a crucial impact on institutional reputations and, as a result, their popularity with students.

University marketing heads this week confirmed they were increasingly monitoring and contributing to sites such as Wikipedia to retain some input into what are fast becoming alternative university guides.

This month, as Luton University celebrated its relaunch as Bedfordshire University, Wikipedia users, including a disgruntled former member of staff, appeared to be waging a propaganda battle.

In the entry for Bedfordshire, alongside innocuous information about the institution's history and campuses, there is a section on "quality and reputation" that is far from flattering. The entry includes a report on the most recent audit of Luton University by the Quality Assurance Agency, which found only "limited confidence" in the "soundness" of the university's systems for managing quality and standards.

The entry also notes that the university dropped from 74th place in 2004-05 in The Times Good University Guide to 118th in 2006-07, cites its low ratings for student satisfaction and includes negative comments from Alfred Vella, Luton's former associate dean for computing research and development. This week, the university said some of the comments were libellous.

Dr Vella told The Times Higher that he had contributed to the Bedfordshire entry. "I have been contributing to the article on the University of Bedfordshire (and Luton before that) to redress its balance," he said.

"Wikipedia is not an advertising medium, and Bedfordshire is still the Luton of old. My motivation is simply the truth."

But a Bedfordshire spokeswoman said: "This case is in the hands of our lawyers. The gentleman concerned was sacked from the university for gross misconduct more than six years ago.

"He subsequently lost his case at a tribunal and at an appeals tribunal. We find his behaviour and his ongoing campaign against the university and individual members of staff most worrying. He continues to be banned from university premises."

Other entries highlight positive quality inspection results and praise Luton's "reputation for excellent teaching".

Siobhan Jones, director of corporate communications at Teesside University, said that sites such as Wikipedia were starting to emerge as an alternative university guides.

She said: "We do keep an eye on our entries, but mainly to make sure that information is accurate and up to date. I wouldn't interfere with individuals' opinions."

While there was potential for a minority of disgruntled staff or students to "walk all over" a university's efforts to build a brand and reputation, it was generally positive to encourage people to share informal sources of information, she added.

Amanda Brook, head of marketing and UK student recruitment at Exeter University and a member of the Higher Education External Relations Association executive committee, said: "We monitor what is being said about the university in websites and student chatrooms as this is a very good reality check and a good way to stay in touch with what your market really thinks of you."

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