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

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