Leicester rapped by watchdog over ‘misleading’ REF results tweet

University breached advertising rules by claiming its arts and humanities research was ‘number one’ in UK, says regulator

September 7, 2022
Bangkok, Thailand - July 14, 2019  iPhone user touching Twitter logo on iPhone screen to open the app.
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The University of Leicester has been criticised by the UK’s advertising watchdog for a “misleading” tweet in which it claimed that its “arts and humanities research is number 1 in the UK”.

The Advertising and Standards Authority (ASA) ruling follows a tweet by the university on the day after the results of the 2021 Research Excellence Framework were published on 12 May, which saw Leicester rank highly in several Panel D subject tables compiled by Times Higher Education based on institutional performance.

Based on a grade point average (GPA) of researchers submitted to the REF, Leicester finished second nationally for history (behind only the University of Kent), third and joint seventh for communication, cultural and media studies, library and information management, and 11th for English language and literature, although it did not enter outputs for several Panel D subjects, including modern languages and linguistics and Classics.

According to the ASA ruling published on 7 September, Leicester said it had undertaken “further analysis” of the 2021 REF results to calculate an overall GPA score for researchers submitted across the 10 units of assessment that formed Panel D, noting that THE had already published a similar GPA-led assessment for whole institutions, which saw the Midlands university placed joint 30th out of 129 institutions.

This analysis led it to tweet on 13 May: “We’re number 1! Our Arts and Humanities research is number 1 in the UK for overall research quality (GPA) in #REF2021” – which prompted a complaint from a former academic, the ASA said.

The watchdog explained that the “university said they had internally self-calculated their number one ranking position for arts and humanities research, as referenced in the ad, by applying an additional layer of analysis to the THE results”.

In its defence, Leicester explained that the “REF methodology was complex and many institutions listed their results in different ways, in part because there was not a standard ‘ranking system’”. However, “THE methodology was the best guide”, it added.

Nonetheless, “internal methodology could also be used to help shape the position,” the university claimed, noting that “other institutions had published similar posts that also lacked references to the methodology used”.

However, the ASA disagreed, stating that the advert – “an organic social media post which was not paid-for” – breached its codes around misleading advertising, substantiation and comparisons with identifiable competitors, as well as qualification.

The authority ordered that the advert “must not appear again in its current form”, although it also noted that following the complaint, the university had “reviewed the tweet and recognised that it did not reference the THE methodology or a University of Leicester press release containing the full institutional results”.

“It had taken action to remove the tweet and said it would ensure that any future marketing messaging strictly adhered to the code and demonstrated the methodology used,” the ASA said.

“The basis of the comparative ‘number 1’ claim had not been clarified in the ad, nor was there a means of verification provided,” it added, stating that “it was likely to mislead” given the “absence of evidence to support that interpretation or a clear and prominent qualification to explain its basis”.

Welcoming the institution’s decision to withdraw the tweet, the ASA said it had nonetheless “told the University of Leicester to ensure that future ads did not suggest they had been ranked directly by the REF 2021, and to ensure the basis of comparative claims was made clear and was verifiable, particularly when citing their own analysis or citing reports or methodologies by other bodies”.

A Leicester spokesman said: “The university recognises that taking an average GPA was not the most accurate baseline position and has now reviewed all REF 2021 messaging and removed this marketing position from all digital and print platforms.”


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Reader's comments (1)

It's almost like marketisation of the sector has led to a loss of integrity.


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