Are questionable marketing claims slipping past the watchdogs?

The ASA and QAA may be too passive, argues study that found misleading claims in prospectuses

January 23, 2014

Source: Alamy

Peer process: education is not one of the fields drawing proactive scrutiny by the Advertising Standards Authority, while the QAA says it reviews materials and issues guidance

In 2012, Channel 4 was censured for overstepping the line in its advertising. In promoting a new series of its programme My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, it ran billboard adverts with the words “Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier” over the scowling face of a traveller child.

The Advertising Standards Authority received 373 complaints and ruled that “some of the images together with the accompanying text were offensive and irresponsible”, a judgement that made headlines.

Will a university ever be on the receiving end of a similarly high-profile slap-down from advertising regulators?

Last week, Times Higher Education reported on a study that claims that university prospectuses have twisted data and told falsehoods.

The paper, “Integrity in higher education marketing? A typology of misleading data-based claims in the university prospectus” found 22 examples of “misleading” claims in eight randomly selected undergraduate prospectuses.

It also asks whether the bodies with the power to inspect universities’ marketing – the ASA and the Quality Assurance Agency – are properly policing claims. The two agencies “do not take a proactive approach and have limited impact on the accuracy of university marketing materials”, says the study.

John Bradley, the study’s author and former principal educational psychologist and head of social inclusion for Nottinghamshire County Council, told THE that the fact he uncovered “systematic use of potentially misleading claims” in a randomised study shows that watchdogs are not up to scratch when it comes to university marketing.

The ASA relies largely on the public to bring misleading advertising to its attention. Although in “priority” areas such as gambling and alcohol advertising, it proactively looks for problems without waiting for complaints, university marketing is not one of those priorities, a spokeswoman said.

This is perhaps understandable: in 2012, just 181 people complained about education advertising (down by a third from the previous year) compared with 5,476 for leisure, the sector that draws the largest number of complaints.

“We haven’t, to date, received complaints about university prospectuses, and complaint numbers for education marketing remain low,” a spokeswoman said.

However, the ASA did provide details of 13 cases in which it has received complaints about an institution’s marketing (see below). These were informally resolved, with the provider agreeing to amend or remove the claims, instead of a full investigation being triggered and a ruling made. The authority has ruled on only one such complaint, made against Plymouth University, and it was not upheld.

What about the QAA? Melinda Drowley, the agency’s head of standards, quality and enhancement, strongly contested the idea that it is a merely reactive body.

In 2012 it introduced guidelines for institutions about information they provide for learners, which state that it must be “fit for purpose, accessible and trustworthy”.

During its reviews, the QAA scours information on websites, in student induction packs and in prospectuses, she said.

The university is then warned if it fails to meet the QAA’s expectations. So far only one institution has been told it is falling short – BPP University College (now BPP University) in February 2013, and the deficiencies were quickly rectified. BPP was also challenged by the ASA over its marketing when it was a university college (see below).

But Dr Drowley emphasised that even if an institution meets expectations, it is still given guidance on how to improve.

The University of Cambridge, for example, was told last year that its information for students “varies in quality and accuracy and the approval and quality assurance of information”, and the QAA recommended that it establish a “central mechanism” to oversee the data it provides.

But a spokeswoman for Cambridge told THE that the agency’s demand for a “single central mechanism” would be “unworkable” for a university “as complex as Cambridge”.

Ultimately the judgement over whether a claim misleads is a subjective one, and here the approaches of Dr Bradley and the QAA appear to diverge.

While Dr Drowley said there is “no excuse for being misleading” in prospectuses, she insisted that “prospective students will read it knowing it’s a marketing tool”.

Dr Bradley, whose doctoral study focused on young people’s views of university, disagreed. He remembered sitting with a group of sixth-formers from “an old coalfield community”, who were poring over a pile of prospectuses.

“While I looked at the glossy publications quite critically, many of those young people were clearly taking what was written very seriously,” he recalled.

For applicants with few family members or friends who have been to university, “the prospectus was often their principal source of information”, Dr Bradley added.

The solution was for universities to subject their marketing material to “the sort of critical scrutiny that they apply to their academic publications”, he argued.

“My impression is that, instead, universities are happy to leave the question of prospectus claims to the marketing department.”

Cases brought to the Advertising Standards Authority and informally resolved, 2010-13

InstitutionAssertion questionedOutcome
Source: Advertising Standards Authority
*Case arose before BPP was granted university title in August 2013
Queen’s University BelfastUniversity “is in the top 1 per cent of universities in the world”Source of claim added 
University of SalfordReferences to fee discounts on posterClaim amended
University of LeicesterResidential venue is “less than a mile from the train station”Claim amended
Heriot-Watt University“For every £1 of core funding, £8 is generated for the Scottish economy” Claim amended
The Open University“24/7 tutor support”Claim amended
London Metropolitan UniversityGenetic counselling MSc graduates were “likely to work” in NHS and accreditation was “in progress”Claims removed
New College of the Humanities“The parchment that you receive following graduation will show that you were…awarded a University of London degree”; students “will use…the exceptional library in Senate House, the University of London Union”Claims amended
BPP University College*References to BPP being a university Claim amended
University of East LondonAcupuncture “may enable you to reduce or even stop taking some forms of medication” Claim removed
University of East LondonAcupuncture “frequently effective” in treating wide variety of conditionsClaim removed
Middlesex University“If you’re working in accounting, law or marketing you also need recognition from the professional bodies associated with those careers”Removed implication that recognition was essential for career in marketing
Anglia Ruskin UniversityAdvertisement for University Centre Harlow courses featured testimonials from Richard Madeley and Piers Morgan that stated: “everyone on that course got a job on a newspaper”Claims amended
Middlesex UniversityAdvertisement for artist-in-residence that did not specify if post was paidClaim amended

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