Beware universities mis-selling courses on open days

Beware universities mis-selling courses on open days

Beware universities mis-selling courses on open days

It’s university application time. Hundreds of thousands of potential students across the country are deciding on their top pick institutions and courses. Many will have been on open days and been impressed by the facilities of the high powered institutions that could change their lives.

I’m a huge fan of university education – I think for many (though not all) it can broaden your financial, cultural, and general world outlook. Yet I want to sound a note of caution: how good a reflection of university life is the open day?

A few years ago I went with my little sister to an open day when she was choosing a course. It was a grand university and we got there for a talk on the international relations course. The man who walked in was an eminent professor who is often interviewed by world media – and within the sector, he is rather well-known.

He waxed regally about himself, the subject and the course for about 25 minutes. All looked good; I could see impressed young faces all around me (and some older ones too – many university applicants are mature students these days). 

Then it came to the question and answer session. One bright potential student put their hand up and asked: "How many contact hours do you have with undergraduates?" 

There was a pause, the professor hesitated, then said; "Actually, I don’t teach undergraduates, I only deal with research students." 

So the young questioner clarified; "In other words, we will never see you at all?"

"Correct," said the professor. 

That was it. If it hadn’t been for that bright student, no one would have realised that what they were being sold – the dream of getting (someone who considered himself to be) one of the world’s great minds on the subject – wasn’t a reality on this course. It got worse as people started to ask about practical issues such as whether or not it was possible to take a sandwich course and go to study abroad? The professor didn’t know. This continued, in fact he knew little about the practical details at all – no surprise as he didn’t have much involvement with them.

You could argue it was just ‘spin’, using one of their big names to draw people in, but there are many walks of life where we’d have called this mis-selling.  

I made a complaint to the university about this – and it agreed to look at its practices (which is why I’ve not named it). 

The appropriate halfway house would’ve been to couple him with another academic who was in charge of the course – so you had one to ‘sell’ the subject and the other to ‘sell’ the course.

These days, with the nominal cost of university at £9,000 per year per course (I say nominal because it is actually what you repay not what you’re charged that counts – see Student Loan Mythbuster), universities can’t allow themselves to behave in this old school paternalistic way.

We now have a much more consumer-driven university landscape and it’s important that universities understand that the way they portray themselves, like any other environment trying to attract business, needs to be ethical, clean, clear and above board.

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