Keep it real! How to avoid misleading students

Editorial note: This article was updated in November 2021

If you think that only marketing and promotions people need to worry about what they say to students, think again! Anyone providing advice or guidance to current or future students has to get their facts right.

Students ask a lot of questions – as they should. Students committing to University education rightly anticipate a future enhanced by their study. They want to take advantage of any learning opportunities that will advance their understanding and their career prospects. They rely on the information provided by the University to make decisions about the cost and duration of programs and about pre-requisite knowledge required for specific course offerings. They also look to us for advice about external opportunities such as placements and internships to enhance their knowledge and prospects.

Keeping expectations real

In providing this information, representatives of the University should always make a point of “keeping it real” for our eager students.

As consumers of university education services, students have legal rights under Australian Consumer Law (as set out in the Competition and Consumer Act 2010). In particular, universities must avoid making any representations that could mislead or cause a student to make the wrong choice based on the information provided. This includes representations in the form of:

  • Verbal statements (formal or informal)
  • Written statements and documents (such as, emails, websites or handbook)
  • Disclaimers or exception clauses (the “fine print”)
  • Statements of opinion
  • Innocent mistakes such as typographical errors or misprints
  • Exaggerated claims or promises
  • Silence… Yes! In some circumstances, even this can give a misleading impression.

What cost?

Misleading conduct or representations made not only have the potential to compromise student experiences and adversely impact on the University’s reputation, it can also trigger legal action under Australian Consumer Law (ACL).

The University could face court imposed orders and be required to pay damages to an affected individual or group for misleading or deceptive conduct. Making false and misleading representations to a student or potential student could be a criminal offence. Such breaches of ACL may result in hefty fines being applied to universities (up to $10M). Individual staff members can also be fined (up to $500k).

Serious penalties may be applied under other laws such as the Education Services for Overseas Students (ESOS) Act or the Misrepresentation Act (SA).

What they hear is what they can expect

When you’re communicating with students, the following advice should guide you:

  • Always be truthful and provide accurate verbal and written information
  • Keep records and evidence that substantiate any claim you make
  • Take care when communicating course fees by carefully explaining the nature of all fees and charges involved - especially to international students
  • Avoid stating your own opinion when representing the University
  • Be sure to clarify any misleading impressions that a student may have
  • Avoid making predictions or promises unless you have reasonable grounds to make them
  • Don’t rely on disclaimers or exemption clauses to qualify exaggerated or ambiguous claims

So, make sure you get your facts right when communicating with students. Even if you did not intend to say or write something misleading, if it causes a student to make the wrong choice, it may still contravene consumer protection laws.

Tagged in news & announcements, Competition and Consumer Law, legal compliance