Advertising (mal)practices: Lack of professional standards

Education sector was the highest spender on print advertising in India and constituted 15% of all print advertising in the first half of 2010 (AdEx Analysis). Within this the top spender is Planman Consultant (IIPM). Planman is now also spending money on TV advertising and is the biggest spender under education sector (watch advertisement) The big question is–Is IIPM through Planman misleading students and families and overclaiming its quality? There are many who believe so. Consider this exhaustive investigation by Careers360–IIPM-Best only in claims? Or this recent analysis of advertising influence of IIPM on media. However, IIPM believes it is not misleading students. Recently, UGC issued a notification that IIPM “does not have the right of conferring or granting degrees as specified by the University Grants Commission.” Why Indian institutions are in this state of overpromising and overclaiming? What are the implications on students?

Competition is intensifying in higher education sector and many institutions in India are engaged in over-promising and misrepresenting. This happens in other consumer sectors too, however, here stakes for the consumers (students) are very high. A detergent company claiming whiteness of shirt has very different implications as compared to an educational institution claiming 100% placement or a coaching institute claiming selection to top institution, when the reality is poor offering. The influence of unfulfilled claims is not only on the career and expectations of students directly but their families too.

This means that ethical standards and their enforcement for education sector should be much stringent. In contrast, there are no guidelines from the sector or from the policymakers. For the first time, ASCI proposed self-regulatory Guidelines for Advertising of Educational Institutions. It appropriately acknowledges that the nature of education services which is different from tangible product and highly influenced by factors like “…qualification nomenclatures, abbreviations, icons, logos, claims, affiliations, testimonials, accreditations, admissions, job and compensation” where wide variety of promises exist. See related story in Business Standard.

At the policy level, the bill to check malpractices in education–The Prohibition of Unfair Practises in Technical, Medical Educational Institutions and Universities Bill— had proposed penalties upto Rs.5 million for misleading advertising. Unfortunately, the discussion on bill has been deferred due to priorities on other bills.

While challenge of overpromising and underdelivering is rampant in Indian education sector, it is also gaining attention in the US. Last month, US GAO report found evidence that for-profit colleges “encouraged fraud and engaged in deceptive and questionable marketing practices.” See the video clips of undercover operation. In June 2010, US Department of Education also proposed negotiated rulemaking for improving integrity among education providers qualified for federal financial aid. It notes that there are “…overly aggressive career college recruiters signing up students, only to have them drop out weeks later and default on their loans. Despite these concerns, for-profit institutions have never been required to substantiate the claim that they are preparing students for ‘gainful employment.'”

Undoubtedly competition is good  and advertising/marketing serves an important function in the sector, however, it is high time that institutions realize that they are not selling detergents or cigarettes and create new benchmarks of ethical standards. Likewise, policy framework should become vigilant and enforce these standards in the interest of students.

-Dr. Rahul Choudaha

7 Comments

  1. Excellent post. I completely agree that we need both self-regulation by the educational institutes and some legal deterrents, to ensure their advertisements do not border line on being a pack of lies.

    Sadly, in the past even some of the 'top' management institutes of our country have given skewed numbers about their placements, and 'average' salary packages landed by their students. Often, it only takes a strong individual inside the institute to stop such malpractices, and I just hope some of the academia at such places takes a stand on these things.

    Sidenote – IIPM has been involved in such controversies for a long time now. A few years back editor of a popular youth magazine in Mumbai raised similar concerns against them in her blog. Last I checked, IIPM had sent her a legal notice. Another prominent blogger who wrote about it had to leave his job when IIPM allegedly threatened to protest in front of his MNC office. Never thought an educational institute could operate in such a way.

  2. I feel every educational institution should take a lesson from the fate of IIPM. Educational institutions, especially business schools should aim towards imparting training and teaching to prepare the students for future. It is agreeable that too much advertising raises questions regarding the authenticity of the institutions. A great eye-opening post. Thank you.

  3. Thought-provoking post! However, the problem is not of Advertising Standards alone, but a larger one of inconsistencies in regulatory norms. Institutions have to follow stringent norms — incidentally considered by many to be arbitrary or outdated or unresponsive to social realities — in order to attain degree-granting status under one of the few channels available. If the same regulatory authorities are unable to crackdown on Institutions that make claims that mock these stringent regulations, then Advertising Standards can only play a limited role in solving this mess. The root problem is that we neither have a peer-regulated realistic accreditation system, nor the reverse — realistic regulations that are enforced.

    Incidentally, while the US examples are valid and interesting, I believe that one significant difference is that those Schools (under investigation) are accused of misrepresenting data to enable student loans/grants.

  4. It is quite clear that these education institutes should spend more on education rather spending student’s fees in glossy articles and advertisement.

  5. The article presents the facts in a non judgemental way. These facts only testify the doubts people like me had looking at adverisements of the said institute. However, I fail to understand when our celebrities like Shahrukh Khan readily associate themselves and participate in the publicity gimmics of such institutes. This does more harm and misleads than the advertisment per se. The youth icons should act with responsibility and use discretion before they lend their name to brands especially in education sector.

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