… and the ugly

What to make of this morning’s news that a senior academic in an administrative position breached anti-solicitation guidelines at the University of Sydney?

Well, first of all, it’s not as colourful as it sounds. Noirish images come to mind, but the reality is more pedestrian. Faced with the need to boost enrolments, a department with an elite reputation based on a restrictive entry requirement made the decision to fish outside their exclusion zone. More than 100 students who had made other choices involving other institutions, who didn’t quite meet the department’s published requirements for entry—the basis of its reputation—found themselves holding a letter offering a guaranteed way in.

If this attempt to change an informed choice made in good faith and accepted by another party had come to us from the world of real estate, say, we’d rightly call it a grubby tactic. It’s a kind of reverse gazumping, designed to exploit the cooling-off period between the decision and the contract. So this fishing expedition disguised as flattery is particularly shabby because it preys on vulnerable and inexperienced consumers for whom everything about universities is new, unfamiliar and often intimidating.

Why wouldn’t you turn in your guaranteed place at the institution you’d planned to attend, for an offer that looks more illustrious at another? Especially if it’s addressed to you by name, personally Montblanc-ed by someone with a title and a senior position, who seems to know something about the application choices you made?  It’s not exactly a 419 scam, is it?  Is it?

Well, partly it is. It’s from someone who doesn’t know you, but is pretending that they do. It’s based on a bogus interest in your welfare, and it promises to enhance your situation in the near future by giving you access to a rare opportunity.  You didn’t ask for it—somehow, your correspondent found you. It’s a mailshot trying to look like a one-off personal correspondence, and it’s effective more often than you would think.

So probably the main difference is in the spelling. (At least, you’d hope so, given the business.)

What makes solicitation like this so painful for potential students, and their families, is that the whole decision to attend university is already fraught with uncertainty. Solicitation converts celebration into indecision, and it seems to require very little ethical care. Institutions spruiking their product because they’re trying to meet sales targets of their own can justify what they do on the basis of a competitive market. They have no responsibility to the customer to explain the true cost—including the cost of a last-minute change of plan. And they’re clearly playing around with privacy when it comes to student data.

When this happens, a university degree becomes just another product that can be sold on the simple risk of ending up without one, urged onto the customer on the same basis as other industries sell life insurance and funeral plans: through an undefined fear that you’ll need one later on. But at least other kinds of businesses who are debt-generators are required by various industry codes of conduct to speak carefully and clearly with borrowers about their ability to repay. Universities aren’t required to counsel about debt at all, nor are they required to consider the emotional impact of their solicitation practices.

But they should be.

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