Prospective students are most likely to trust information about universities that they perceive to be impartial and place only limited weight on advertising and social media, a study suggests.
A survey of 1,475 applicants to undergraduate courses at UK universities found that more than half the respondents regarded information that they gleaned from a visit to an institution or from the Ucas website as being highly trustworthy.
The other most trusted sources of information were the university website, in which 46.6 per cent of respondents put a high level of trust, and printed prospectuses, which scored 42.8 per cent.
In contrast, only 26 per cent of respondents said they regarded university advertising as being highly trustworthy, and just 14.5 per cent put a high level of trust in social media, according to results published in the Journal of Marketing for Higher Education.
Paul Gibbs, director of the Centre for Education Research and Scholarship at Middlesex University, and Aftab Dean, a senior lecturer at Leeds Beckett University’s School of Strategy, Marketing and Communication, write that “trust in the authority of information about universities relies on it being impartial”.
Social media, they say, appears to be regarded as being a “fun, conversational” mode of communication through which students “may seek opinion but not detailed information on which to base decisions”.
Universities have spent increasing amounts on marketing following the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees in England, with a Times Higher Education investigation revealing last year that spending at 70 institutions had increased by a third in two years.
Institutions have also devoted growing attention to their social media presence, but the authors say their findings should have “considerable impact” on how universities spend their communications budgets.
“The main sources that are both informative and trusted are those that are perceived as factual and not as marketing from the university,” the paper says.
Professor Gibbs told THE that advertising and social media could potentially play an important role in directing students towards prospectuses, websites and open days. But the shift away from traditional sources of information “has not been as significant” as it has been in other sectors, he said.