Universities are advertising on an internet site that contains topless images of under 18-year-olds, writes Phil Baty.
Several universities, including Hertfordshire, Thames Valley and City, have posted their courses and contact information on a "youth community" website that contains images of semi-naked youngsters and sexually explicit editorial content. City University this week confirmed it had a presence on the site, but it had requested that references to it be "removed forthwith".
The site, Bigwideworld.com, is aimed at 16 to 24-year-olds, and the launch of a university guide - "find me a uni" - is planned next month. Universities are being asked for up to £2,000 to display official information. But university marketing chiefs have expressed alarm at the site's content.
Peter Hough, publications editor at the University of Ulster's department of public affairs, has warned colleagues against advertising on the site. "While I accept that the relevant subsections contain factual and informative pages, there are sections of the site that are frankly obscene, in image and languageI There is material on the site of an at best salacious, at worst pornographic, nature," he said on an external relations website.
He said the fact universities had signed up was symptomatic of the growing competition for students. "The site unashamedly aims for this lowest common denominator approach and while this is appropriate, perhaps, for today's web-literate, slightly jaded 16 to 24-year-old, I know our senior management would be horrified to discover we had paid to take part in such a website. We therefore declined."
The site contains an area in which "members" can post photographs of themselves and invite emails from other users. Other members can find people's images according to their age - 16 or older - their gender and their sexuality. Under-18s have posted images of themselves in their underwear, with nicknames such as "gorgeous chick" and "kinkyshannon".
A spokesman for City University said this week: "We would like to make clear that at the time we submitted (information to the site) we were not aware of the sexually explicit images on the members' profile pages. We wish to make it clear that we do not wish to be associated with any such images and that we have requested that our web presence be removed permanently."
The University of Hertfordshire said it was advertising on the site but "further investigation of this website is necessary".
Mark Taylor of Bigwideworld said he accepted that some of the material was "risque". "From time to time members do put up pictures of themselves of an illicit nature, but anything against publishing laws gets removed. However, topless pictures are not against the law, so we let that go.
"This is a site for young people, and the people using the site are who matters to us. If that is what they are into, who are we to argue with it?"
He said the company was "looking into" introducing "adult verification software" to weed out users who were under 16.