Higher Education: Hard sell and soft soap

Universities are accused of producing prospectuses that are stronger on gloss than on accuracy. By Stephen Pritchard
The process of choosing a university course could become even more fraught after top level criticism of the accuracy of some prospectuses, which implies that some applicants need to second-guess the accuracy of universities' recruitment material.

The report, just published by the Higher Education Quality Council, covers inspections of universities and colleges between April 1994 and July 1995. In that time, HEQC teams visited 48 institutions, and uncovered difficulties with prospectuses, course brochures and other advertising material.

Inspectors found that, although most information was accurate, there were problems in the descriptions of course options, sports and social facilities, and claims universities made about job prospects for graduates.

The HEQC is planning to tighten its guidelines on promotional material. Although criticisms in individual audits were muted, the council is concerned that market forces might encourage colleges to cut corners in the future.

"We would be worried if marketing-led promotion overtakes prudence, and we would want to make sure material contains nothing but the facts," says Peter Williams, director of quality assurance at HEQC. The council is warning universities to ensure that they can back up any claims they make.

Universities themselves do not believe there is a large-scale problem. The University of Central England, at Birmingham, was criticised by inspectors for claims over sporting facilities. Currently, UCE has no pitches of its own, although it plans to buy suitable land. Problems arose when students inferred from the prospectus about sports teams that there were also pitches. According to the students' union president, Stephen Harrison-Mirfield, complaints were made only by one or two individuals. "The university nowhere claimed that we had sports fields," he says. "We have no facilities whatsoever here." Instead, the university hires pitches as and when they are needed.

Mr Harrison-Mirfield does not believe the university should be censured for not highlighting its disadvantages. "Universities will always have prospectuses that make them sound slightly better than they are. How can you sell yourself otherwise?"

De Montfort University, based in Leicester and Milton Keynes, was criticised for some of its promotional materials, although its audit, published last October, was too late for inclusion in the HEQC report. Students told inspectors that De Montfort made claims about course combinations that were not available in practice. This was most common with modular courses, and is a criticism that has been levelled at several other universities.

Professor Michael Brown, pro-vice chancellor, agrees modular programmes can create problems. "You just cannot give students carte blanche to choose what they want," he says. "What students actually want is not a huge variety, but a sensible and coherent path of study."

The university, according to Professor Brown, has procedures in place to check material before it is published. "It is important to us to make sure that we represent fairly what we are offering people," he says.

One source of more serious problems is courses where part of a degree is delivered through a local college of further education. A lack of co- ordination can mean information is not always checked carefully enough.

One such case was settled recently by the National Union of Students' lawyers. Students at Mid Kent College in Rochester enrolled on a three- year programme, franchised from South Bank University. They believed all three years would be taught in Kent, but at the end of the second year, South Bank said told the students they would have to commute to London for the final year. After negotiation, 31 students won pounds 700 compensation: enough to cover the cost of rail travel to Elephant and Castle.

The Mid Kent students were lucky. They had a clear case, and the institution was prepared to settle. The fact that a whole course was affected also helped. For individual students, the old maxim buyer beware is likely to be more useful.

Students advise applicants to go to open days, talk to undergraduates, and read the alternative prospectus, if there is one. "Students should go round them and see what places look like," suggests Stephen Harrison- Mirfield.

Universities are not immune to the "travel brochure" school of advertising. Even a grey campus can look attractive pictured on a sunny day, but what will it be like in November?