Straight A’s in Marketing: Raising the Bar for Educational Institutions

May 16, 2023

‘Advertising is an instrument in the hands of the people who use it. If evil men use advertising for base purposes, then evil can result. If honest men use advertising to sell an honest product with honest enthusiasm, then positive good for our kind of capitalistic society can result’ – John W. Crawford

Since the advent of globalization, there has been cut-throat competition in markets across the world, where every firm or trader vies for a bigger slice of the pie. To do this, businesses engage in rigorous marketing and advertising to influence consumers towards their product or service. For a business, a good marketing scheme can turn pennies into gold, or save a sinking ship from Davey Jones’ locker.  

This is perhaps the reason why many businesses find themselves falling down the slippery slope of misleading, false and deceptive advertising. The advent of marketing transcends industries and sectors around the world, and one of the newer areas where it is increasingly visible in Fiji is the education sector. Unfortunately, the advertising and marketing in this sector is often riddled with a plethora of inaccuracies and half-truths.

Among universities offering higher education, in the past few years, the fight for the crown has become a full-blown royal rumble. In Fiji, the monopolistic like structure which existed decades ago is slowly fading away with the opening of more universities as well as short course providers. Resultantly, higher education institutions offering similar products or programs, like other consumer goods, are also feverishly competing for students’ attention by using different marketing strategies. The Consumer Council of Fiji is concerned that in this bid to get the most students, educational institutions at times end up crossing the already blurred lines of ethical marketing, sometimes- to the detriment of their consumers- in ways that are less than obvious.  

What is considered ‘unethical’ marketing?

Unethical and misleading marketing and advertisement campaigns by educational institutions can come in many forms. Thus, as responsible consumers we must be wary to ensure that we are not beguiled by it. Some common ones include:

  1. Unable to deliver courses as promised

One of the ways educational institutions may mislead their customers; the students is by marketing a variety of courses, without having the resources and capacity to deliver them. For instance, the Council recently investigated a case whereby a short course provider advertised a

particular course and as a result, some students enrolled and paid their fees. However, the institution was not able to provide classes as advertised and promised.

Responsible/ethical behavior: ensuring that the university/institution has adequate resources and the ability to offer courses before advertising them. If there are not enough resources, it should not be advertised and payments should not be accepted from students. 

  1. Making erroneous claims

At times educational institutions all over the world end up claiming, in one way or another that they are among the top universities in the world or are among an exclusive elite group of universities. For instance, using a ranking in which only a small percentage of universities in the world participate, and using this to claim to be among the best in the world. In another instance, a local university recently advertised their courses as having been ‘reviewed and recognized locally as well as internationally’ without disclosing the type of review that was done and by whom, and without any other supporting evidence.

Responsible/ethical behavior: to clearly outline the different factors/variables used in the ranking, number of universities involved and the possible limitations of the ranking.

  • Making claims which are half-truths

Universities are often seen making claims such as ‘our graduates are employable overseas or in country X’ in their marketing campaigns. This statement alone can end up being the deciding factor for which university or course a student may choose. Unfortunately, the university cannot guarantee employability. Often, the statement ‘our graduates are employable overseas’ is not categorically wrong. For instance, a person holding a degree in marketing may get a job overseas as a front desk worker. The statement of general ‘employability’ would still hold true.  Here, the marketing is misleading because it implies that if a student does a course with them, they will be able to easily get a job in that particular field of study.

Responsible/ethical behavior: Universities must thoroughly disclose that getting a particular qualification does not guarantee its equivalency in another country, and refrain from advertising its marketability elsewhere without adequate research. A more honest advertisement for instance, would be for a university to say that ‘10% of our engineering graduates who migrated are working in an equivalent or better role in the same field as they did in Fiji.’

  • Claims regarding unaccredited/unrecognized courses

Students have the right to know whether a particular course is recognized in Fiji or any other country. A few years ago, there was a case whereby a university claimed that after completing a degree, their qualification would be recognized and they would be employable in Fiji. However, upon completing the course, the students discovered that it was not registered with the Fiji Higher Education Authority and was generally not recognized.

Responsible/ethical behavior: Universities must not market and offer courses which are of no value to the students. They must disclose whether their courses are accredited and recognized by the relevant higher education authorities and not hide this fact so that students can make informed decisions.

Implications of providing false/partial/misleading information

By engaging in unethical advertising and marketing campaigns, universities mislead students into choosing to study with them. As students are paying the university for obtaining a qualification, it essentially makes them a consumer, and as consumers, students have the right to accurate, reliable and timely information in order to make informed decisions.

These transgressions in marketing tactics, even the minute ones, may end up influencing potential students into enrolling with the university orchestrating it. Such practices are not only unethical but also amounts to unconscionable conduct. 

Key tips for students

Whilst the Council will push for ethical marketing by universities, students as consumers must be vigilant and ensure they do their part when choosing universities and courses. Here are a few simple tips for students to ensure they do not fall for dubious marketing tactics:

  1. Do not believe any and all claims being made by a university, do your own research. For instance, if a university is claiming they their qualification is recognized in country X, enquire about any accreditation by the education authorities in that particular country. You may also do some online research to verify their claims.
  2. Before being enticed by the marketing for a particular course by a university, do some comparative shopping just like you would do when buying goods from a supermarket. Check whether a similar course is offered by other universities, determine which one offers the best options in terms of quality and price as well.
  3. Ask for second opinion. Before enrolling in a course, ask your family and friends who did similar courses about their experiences, delivery by the university and other relevant information.
  4. Check the authenticity/credibility of courses offered; especially pioneer courses. If you are intending to enroll in pioneer courses, check with the education authority on whether the courses have been registered with them.

What is the Council doing?

The Council will be monitoring different platforms in order to weed out such issues in the marketplace. Furthermore, the Council will be conducting research on the marketing practices of universities in the near future in Fiji. Based on the outcome of this research, if need be, the Council will be making submissions to the relevant bodies for the introduction of standards on marketing practices by universities.

If students feel that they have been subjected to unethical marketing practices by a university, they can contact the Council on the toll-free number 155 or lodge a complaint using the Consumer Council of Fiji mobile app.