You can pun but you can't hide

April 7, 1995

In a survey of recent issues of New Scientist, 64 British universities advertised in the appointments pages, of which 36 (56 per cent) always included a statement about equal opportunities. (The smallest advertisements, in which the frequency of statements was less were excluded from the survey). The universities of Manchester and Wolverhampton seemed most proud of their policies but most of the statements were short and bland.

Why do some universities make statements and others not? They may not have formal policies which would involve a lot of difficult work. For example, imagine that personal information is withheld during shortlisting so that the proportions of applicants, shortlisted and appointed, in any pre-defined category could be compared. This would be a test of bias at the interview. If 30 per cent of shortlisted applicants for a nursing job were male but only 20 per cent were appointed, would this be a meaningful level of discrimination? How big was the sample and the associated sampling errors? Among those shortlisted, were formal qualifications less good among the males? Were females on average better fitted for the job in some other respect? Was there a difference between interviewers? Clearly, careful statistical analysis and hard thinking would be required.

In addition, the more an equal opportunities policy is defined the more obvious the logical dangers. In particular, having accepted one pre-defined category, it is difficult not to accept others, because there are no way stations on the road to reductio ad absurdam: the affirmation of the ultimate minority, the individual, when all those qualified for a job would have the right to be appointed. More pragmatically, the more categories an administration makes or, having recognised one, the more it is forced to recognise, the more it could be challenged to demonstrate lack of bias, and the more the policy guidelines would force interviewers to discriminate to achieve correctness. Have we appointed our quota of applicants who are divorced, already employed, left-handed, under 25, from the north of England, from new universities, etc?

Thus, an absence of formal policy is very defensible. Universities may well settle for an operational stance by making a statement simply intended to encourage everyone who is qualified to apply. However, simply to make an assurance of good intentions is uncomfortably close to advertising and would create unease in the academic mind.

Evidence for this unease is provided by the new universities since some of them seem to have taken a step closer to accepting sloganeering. In the survey already mentioned, seven of 21 employed general slogans which do not even pretend to convey information. For example, "The intelligent career choice" (Northampton), "Working with students to achieve excellence" (Oxford Brookes) or "The university of choice" (South Bank). Birmingham was the only long-established university (of 43) to make an equally general statement, about existing ". . . to advance learning to the highest level for the benefit of its students and society at large".

In future will it become more common for universities to advertise themselves with catchphrases and slogans? The trend is certainly that way. In mid-1992 only 40 per cent of universities advertising appointments always made statements about equal opportunities, indicating a significant increase since then, and no university employed a slogan.

However, the use of catchphrases and slogans may prove to be an experiment that ultimately fails. First, they are not entirely vacuous: they invite the reader to be sceptical. For example, do universities which reassure us that they no longer discriminate against women have a poor record in this respect? Do those which advertise their academic quality have low standards? Is the purpose of the University of Birmingham the subject of debate? Slogans could easily have the opposite effect to that intended. But will prospective staff and students prove to be sufficiently critical thus to nullify the laws of advertising.

Second, catchphrases and slogans represent the wrong medium to convince us that traditional values of scholarship (including non-discrimination) are being upheld. This is because they are not to be taken literally: they belong more to the domains of rhetoric or amusing nonsense. The best ones are memorable because they are spiced with pun, rhyme or metre. By these standards the slogan of De Montfort University "A higher degree of finish" is relatively good. However, given the context, anyone who thinks that this is clever or amusing surely does not belong in a university, let alone a university administration.

The "better" the slogan the more obviously inappropriate, and the more the dignity of institutions which should be among our most august is prejudiced. When there is nothing of substance to convey, to try to dignify statements by couching them in high-sounding claptrap is entirely misguided. The result is ridiculous. Nor does a bland statement like: "The university is an equal opportunities employer" have any literal meaning.

A university has limited scope for image-building through advertising because it is a very open entity. Its reputation is firmly grounded in the first-hand experience of its students, who turn over rapidly, and in its many other interactions with the outside world. Universities which are so inclined can pun but they can't hide.

Philip Wilson is in the departamento de engenharia florestal, Instituto Superior de Agronomia, Lisbon.

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