The NUS president has always had calls during clearing, but this year given the number of 18 year-olds in the system and the explosion in competitive tactics, I’ve almost had to set up my own phone bank to deal with students wanting my help when sifting through adverts and claims.
Despite the Advertising Standards Authority releasing welcome rulings earlier in the year, we’ve seen plenty of “Top 15” and “Top 10” ads- across print and social media- with no traceable root for the claims at all. There’s the university that talked about its “100% graduate jobs” record- with only the small print revealing that that was for a single course a few years ago. There’s the universities that have been trumpeting their placing in TotallyMoney’s cheapest student towns table – a robust piece of work that, let’s not forget, managed to conclude that a kebab at the University of Nottingham costs £1 more than at Nottingham Trent. Or the university that used several ads to proudly talk about its “Top 10” status for graduate employment, with only the small print revealing that that claim was based on numbers (ie its size) rather than percentage (ie the actual chances of getting a job).
As a digital native, I’m convinced that none of this will work. Today’s students and applicants have grown up with fake news and dodgy advertising and can distinguish between the truth and the lies. But we do expect universities to sit outside of that culture, not within it. What students really want – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds- is accurate information, advice and guidance (IAG), not to have to compile a dossier for the ASA.
We’ve also had all sorts of calls from students about freebies and incentives. We get it – the odd branded teddy bear or fancy mug at an open day is all part of the fun. But this clearing period we’ve heard stories of cash incentives, expensive IT equipment and deep discounts on accommodation being dangled as carrots during clearing. Let’s not pretend that all of the “scholarships” that have been on offer neatly fit into access and participation plans. There is a material chance that some of these gifts will go to students that don’t need them, and that is money that could be being spent on mental health services, teaching and learning or even lecturer’s salaries.
All aboard the banter bus
But probably the worst thing about this clearing period has been the spectre of university twitter accounts engaged in “street talk” and “banter”. We’ve seen YouTubers that have never been near a University being used as “influencers” for campuses like they’re selling cool clothing. Some have been engaged in “comedy” dissing of other Universities- and others have been using slang and memes that were popular many months ago. There’s a fine line between making your comms accessible or friendly to students, and coming across like an embarrassing uncle at a wedding. We’re a generation that’s already mistrustful of institutions, and what we look for when we’re making big life decisions is clarity, simplicity and empathy. What we don’t want is to be patronised. Leave the street slang to students.
As the Government’s Post-18 review continues over the summer, in my view we’re in the fight of our lives to protect funding for students’ education and do something about student hardship and poverty. I’m the first to call out this government’s marketisation policies for driving the wrong incentives and causing unnecessary competition. But when the public and the treasury think this is a greedy and overfunded sector, the case for additional investment is already difficult. The HE sector’s antics don’t have to make things worse.