UK universities forced to axe ‘misleading’ rankings claims

Advertising Standards Authority upholds complaints about assertions from six institutions

November 15, 2017
misleading
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Six UK universities have been forced to ditch marketing claims regarding their accomplishments in rankings or other performance tables, after coming under fire from the advertising watchdog.

The Advertising Standards Authority upheld complaints made against material produced by the universities of East Anglia, Leicester, Strathclyde and West London, as well as Falmouth and Teesside universities.

In each case the institution made claims about their performance in university rankings, student satisfaction tables or government indicators that the ASA ruled were “misleading”. The watchdog said the adverts “should not appear in the current form again”.

The ruling against Falmouth University centred on its assertion that it was the “UK’s No 1 Arts University (for three years running)” in The Times and Sunday Times 2017 league table and “The UK’s number one creative university” in three domestic rankings.

Despite being the highest-ranked institution in a list of “arts universities” from The Times and Sunday Times, the ASA said Falmouth was not the top university when the guides were filtered to rank institutions by subjects such as art or art and design in the given years.

Teesside University had claimed on its website and on Twitter that it was the “top university in England for long-term graduate prospects” based on the government’s 2016 longitudinal outcomes data. But the ASA said the data was “open to interpretation” and the adverts “did not make clear the basis of the claim as the university’s own analysis of the cited government data”.

Meanwhile, the ASA said the University of East Anglia’s claim that it was in the “top five for student satisfaction” based on the National Student Survey from 2005 to 2016, was generated using the institution’s own “internal reporting tool” and only took into account universities the UEA considered to be “mainstream”.

It said that the evidence provided by the university “did not sufficiently substantiate the claim they intended to make”.

The ruling against the University of Leicester centred on a Facebook post in which it claimed it was “a top 1% world university”. The ASA said the estimated figure for the total number of universities in the world varied between ranking bodies and the assertion did not make clear the criteria of how universities were judged.

The University of Strathclyde said its physics department was “rated number one in the UK for research in the REF [research excellence framework] 2014”, but the ASA said it should have made clear that the basis of this claim was an analysis of the REF results by Times Higher Education rather than the REF itself.

The ASA also argued that the University of West London’s claims to have been “named as London’s top modern university – and one of the top 10 in the UK”, based on The Guardian’s 2018 league table, was not based on a specific category that ranked “modern” universities in the list. Four additional universities referred to by the university that could also be broadly defined as “modern” were ranked above UWL in the league table, it said.

Guy Parker, chief executive of the ASA, said the rulings “send a clear message to UK universities”.

“If you’re making claims about your national or global ranking, student satisfaction or graduate prospects, make sure you practice what you teach: play by the advertising rules, in particular by backing up your claims with good evidence,” he said. “Going to university involves a big financial commitment and misleading would-be students is not only unfair, it can also lead them to make choices that aren’t right for them.”

He added that the ASA will issue new guidance to help universities “get their ads right so students can be confident they’ll get what they pay for”.

Several of the universities said they disagreed with the ASA but would abide by their ruling.

The University of Leicester said it was “disappointed that the ASA differs in their interpretation of the rankings from the compilers of the tables themselves”.

“While we disagree with the ASA on their assessment methodology, we will abide by their ruling,” it said.

A spokesman for Teesside University added that it “strongly believes that the marketing message was accurate, but we respect the decision of the Advertising Standards Agency and welcome the Committee of Advertising Practice’s first, and necessary, guidance for the sector”.

A Falmouth University spokesman said that “while we must accept the ruling, we are disappointed that the ASA made this decision”.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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