B-school ads: Half truths and white lies

livemint.com | Premchand Palety

Half-truths are as bad as white lies.

This fact is even endorsed in the Mahabharata when Dronacharya is tricked to death. In the battlefield, finding it difficult to eliminate Dronacharya, the Pandavas target his weakness, which is his love for his son Ashwathama.

They kill an elephant by the same name and then send him the message that his son is killed. To verify the news, he turns to Yudhishtra, the eldest of the Pandavas, who was known to always tell the truth.

Yudhishtra misleads him, saying, “Ashwathama is killed,” and then adding almost inaudibly, “the elephant.” Dronacharya, thinking that his son is killed, collapses and is killed. Yudhishtra didn’t lie, but he also did not communicate the whole truth. His half-truth was no better than a lie.

These days, the half-truth phenomenon is rampant in the media. With public relations and advertising agencies influencing media priorities, even editorial space is being openly sold, without disclosing this to readers, these days. The boundary between news and advertisement has blurred.

Some of our business schools are also taking advantage of this phenomenon in the information age. Be it advertisements published as news or as pure advertisements, there are half-truths and lies being told.

Since we do an annual survey of B-schools, we have access to information about them through primary survey and secondary sources.

This we validate by the mystery shopping method, that is, one of our representative, without revealing his identity, checks the veracity of the information by talking to existing students, faculty members and support staff.

The upshot: some advertisements and sponsored “news items”, we have found, are completely misleading.

Placement figures

The placement figures they quote are highly exaggerated. In some cases, the maximum and average salary figures quoted in the advertisements is almost 100% more than the actual figures. Some quote salary figures of Rs1 crore, which is actually a foreign placement figure and is effectively about Rs15 lakh per annum if purchasing power parity is factored in.

Some claim 100% placements and even international placements, when the truth is that hardly 50% are placed on-campus and that too, mostly as entry level salesmen. Some schools absorb their own students as faculty or in one of their own organizations for a very low salary. Wrong information is also given about the companies that visit for campus placements.

In one case, after cross-checking, we found that none of the blue-chip companies that were prominently displayed as regular recruiters in the ads had even visited the campus of this B-school.

Some talk of renowned international faculty visiting their campus as if they are their visiting faculty. The truth is, they are invited for a talk over some topic for a few hours. The actual “faculty” consists mostly of fresh graduates. Then they talk of free laptops and foreign trips. The fact is, nothing is free. Everything is factored into the fee, which in some cases go up to Rs9 lakh.

There are some schools that prominently display their ranking by some publications. Nothing wrong with that. But many don’t mention which year the survey was conducted. Ranking changes every year, depending upon the performance of the B-school against parameters such as faculty, infrastructure, industry interface and placements, among other measures.

Sometimes, they give selective findings of a survey that are completely misleading. Ranking agencies, too, need to be transparent and carefully monitor the work of field staff.

False promises

The victims of such publicity are mostly students from small towns who don’t have much information about such institutes. They are swayed by such advertisements.

Attracted by good job prospects and other false promises, they coax their parents to shell out hefty fees. Some B-schools trap the students by making them deposit a high percentage of overall fees in the first term itself. Sometimes, parents are forced to part with their substantial life savings to finance the “education” of their kids. The other aspect of advertisements is that it sometimes leads to the dilution of academic processes by diverting resources for publicity.

In the case of some B-schools, this shift of priorities can be seen, in the process becoming glorified placement agencies. Their maximum spending is on attracting students who can pay hefty fees and then “networking” with human resource personnel of industry for their placements. In the process, the focus on adding value to existing skills and knowledge of students is somewhat compromised.

This is not to say that B-school advertising, per se, is bad or is not desirable. It is perhaps the most efficient way for institutes to reach their target market. For new institutes, it’s the best way of increasing their brand awareness among the target audience. The problem arises when basic ethics are compromised with and the trust of readers or viewers is betrayed.

Premchand Palety is director of Centre for Forecasting and Research (C-fore) in New Delhi, from where he keeps a close eye on India’s business schools. Comments are welcome at businesscase@livemint.com