University prospectuses have come under fire for “misleading” students reports Times Higher Education. Universities have been criticised for producing prospectuses that are “all much of a muchness” and, amid the glossy pages of marketing puffery, often “too good to be true.” A  common complaint has emerged from student juries across the UK that, beneath the jargon, many prospectuses fail to accurately explain what a course is really about.

The first annual report by the National Student Forum, released last year, urged that it could be difficult for prospective students to get “a reasonable sense of what it will feel like to study subject X at university Y” precisely because “universities and colleges do not always provide enough detail about course content, teaching and assessment methods.”

Moreover there is a feeling that, more often than not, course descriptions are taken out of the hands of subject departments and largely written by marketing teams. As a result, selling points are predominantly vague and generic. Many degrees are said to offer “an exciting, challenging and stimulating experience” in “a friendly and supportive learning environment” where students can expect to be taught by those who are “leading experts in their field.” And what might students hope to gain from these courses? Again, the answers can seem generalised, for example: “Graduates will be equipped with the skills necessary to be highly employable communicators in a wide variety of fields.” Even less helpful is the claim that a particular course offers an “ideal route” to just about any career except acrobatics or midwifery.

‘There is a feeling that, more often than not, course descriptions are taken out of the hands of subject departments and largely written by marketing teams’

Sixth form student and prospective Languages student, Catherine Strachan, explained to The Badger that, “Most prospectuses do not sufficiently detail the structure of the course, the contact hours you might expect to receive, or how work is assessed. Often the only way to find out these details is to attend the Open Days, which can be a lot of hassle, or to apply for a place and then wait for the post application course details letter, which gives you more specific information.”

Brian Heap, author of Choosing Your Degree Course & University, now in its 11th edition, is also sceptical about how far universities have thought through what makes their courses distinctive: “When I ask staff what they think is significant about their course, they often talk about research results or league tables, which are not necessarily crucial for school-leavers”. Indeed, it is clear that prospectuses are primarily concerned with selling an institution as a brand, brazenly boasting league table successes and stars for research excellence, rather than focusing on the content of the courses themselves. 

While some may criticise this misplaced focus, students – as paying customers – have increasingly high expectations of universities. It is arguably more crucial than ever for institutions to sell themselves to prospective students, the key to which is undoubtedly effective marketing. The question which remains to be asked is whether students are more concerned with buying into the name of an institution over their choice of degree course.

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