Ministry to rein in misleading claims by private institutions

Singapore’s Council for Private Education, or CPE, last week published new ground rules on responsible and truthful advertising by private education institutions, to rein in misleading or false claims and provide better protection for students turning to the growing private higher education sector.

The rules will also make it more difficult for degree mills to snare unsuspecting victims.

In addition, the CPE said: “Advertisements must not exploit the lack of experience or knowledge of prospective students. They must also not attempt to play on the fears or concerns of prospective students.”

In particular private institutions, including private degree-awarding bodies and schools that provide preparatory courses for universities in Singapore and abroad, will have to substantiate claims they make in promotional materials by providing documentary proof, and must obtain “valid written permission” from any organisation or institutions referred to in order to bolster claims.

The new advertising code, issued on 10 April by the CPE, a statutory body under Singapore’s Ministry of Education, applies to advertising, brochures and other media used to promote courses and services to students.

“Examples of misleading advertisements include the use of superlatives like ‘No. 1’ and ‘100% student satisfaction’ when the claim cannot be substantiated," the CPE said in its guidelines drawn up after consultations with providers.

Other phrases listed as possibly false or misleading if they are not substantiated include ‘Worldwide accepted qualification’, ‘World’s best lecturers’ and ‘guaranteed success in life’.

The rules include a ban on the use of “research results or statistics published, such that they appear to have scientific basis or government support when that is not true”.

The detailed guidelines state that to be credible, an institution should only quote “valid and reputable” sources of information in making claims.

Fictitious or false testimonials are also prohibited, with the CPE having the right to ask an institution to provide contacts of students or parents quoted, in order to verify the information. The institution “may also be asked to substantiate that those testimonials reflect the typical experience of its students or parents”.

If space constraints make it difficult to provide the information, the guidelines recommend a link to the relevant page on its website, where students or the public can easily access and obtain truthful information. “As a responsible practice, the source should not be one where prospective students can only get verbal, unrecorded information,” it said.

Using words such as approved, accredited, endorsed, supported, validated or authorised without substantiation could be construed as misleading.

The guidelines also refer to pictures of an institution’s premises and facilities, which must be accurate and up-to-date. Pictures of other institutions that could lead students to assume it has additional premises in Singapore and elsewhere, if it is not true, are not acceptable.

CPE Chief Executive Officer Henry Heng said the new code “provides a set of guidelines that will help [private institutions] to be more factually accurate and responsible in the claims that they make in their advertisements.

“Ultimately, our aim is to ensure that students and prospective students are given accurate information upon which they can then make informed decisions.”

Private providers have welcomed the code, but have said they hope for flexibility in applying the guidelines to allow a level playing field in an internationally competitive market.

The new rules come into force on 9 July this year, in part to allow institutions time to bring publications up to date in accordance with the new rules. The CPE will hold briefings in the coming months to provide guidance to institutions, the organisation said.

Failure to comply with the code’s requirements may result in penalties, including fines and imprisonment for up to six months under Singapore’s Private Education Act.