Are Australian universities being honest with their students?

Ah, excuse me, I’d like my money back. University image from www.shutterstock.com

Would you like to go to a university where “free thinkers from all over the world come together to make a difference” or, if you like getting to know people, you could go to a university where you can be “networking with today’s leaders of industry”.

These are just two examples of the things that Australian universities promise on their web sites to attract students. More or less, these are ads and advertising is often about promoting the positive, downplaying the negative and sometimes stretching the truth a little.

But in Australia, there’s an increasing number of graduates holding their universities to account. The Overseas Students Ombudsman has had around 600 complaints since it formed from disappointed students with high expectations. One international student sued his former ANU college after claiming they didn’t deliver.

In the USA, law graduates took legal action and sued for compensation when their expectations of career advancement fed by promotional materials and inaccurate graduate placement rates did not materialise.

Even though in the end some of the court actions were thrown out and Australian students are less likely to sue when they don’t get what they want, these are some strong warning signs to universities to not promise too much.

Would you like fries with that degree?

Higher education is becoming a commodity. This means more and more, universities are seen as sellers and students as consumers. It’s a competitive market and competition is fierce.

Over the past twenty years, universities have also become more businesses-like in many areas of their operations. As government has reduced funding, they have become more reliant on income from fee-paying students.

At the same time, fees are also increasing for international and domestic students who are more choosy about where they want to study and conscious of wanting “value for money” (often measured through job prospects after graduation).

Caught between squeezed budgets and intense competition for students, the temptation for universities to overstate things a little might be irresistible.

Advertising and the pursuit of truth

But higher education is more than just a means for getting a well-paid career. In his book What Money Can’t Buy, Harvard’s Michael Sandel argues that it is important for universities to remain true to the ideals that make them places of higher learning. These include the pursuit of truth, promoting excellence in research and learning, and nurturing civic virtues.

There are many ways that universities might “sell out” on these ideals. One of these is to engage in the sort of marketing and advertising that feeds and feeds-off the commodification of higher education.

Does it matter? After all, the quotes at the top of this article are just marketing “strap lines” designed to get people’s attention.

An eye on bigger things

Universities have an obligation to give truthful and clear impressions about the experiences students have when studying there and their job prospects after graduating.

Students and their families invest a lot of time, money and effort. More fundamentally though universities, as places of higher learning and research, have a commitment to academic values such as truth, transparency, and integrity.

In a recent article in the Journal of Further and Higher Education, Brian Miller asks if education is a commodity, then what are they selling? Is it just another consumption experience?

The traditional university has gone and we are not sure what kind of university will eventually replace it. Those who contest the idea of universities as businesses and higher education as a commodity find their voices heard less and less.

Universities are more than “businesses” with paying customers. There are intangible benefits about higher education that money cannot and should not buy and advertising cannot sell.

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