University advertising must be scrupulously accurate

Recent ASA rulings show that students are still potentially being misled, says John Bradley

June 30, 2019
London Piccadilly

Few would dispute that young people need to be able to make informed decisions about their higher education options, based on accurate information. After all, their choices will account for several years of their life and deeply affect their future prospects – especially when, as in the UK and US, university study results in large debts.

There are rules about the accuracy of advertising, of course. In the UK, these are overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). But any university found to have broken those rules can remedy the situation quickly and informally by promising not to repeat the offending claims. A vague note appears on the ASA’s website, but, as revealed by a freedom of information request that I recently submitted, universities are assured that the agency “won’t give details of the complaint or state that the ad broke the Code rules”. This flies in the face of the undergraduate consumer rights guide produced by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which states that prospective students must be made aware of any changes to the marketing materials that may be influencing their decisions.

For universities that aspire to higher ethical standards, this situation is unhelpful because the lack of transparency prevents them from learning where to draw the line when it comes to creative interpretations of data in their own advertising. Currently, misleading claims only become public knowledge when the ASA releases a report, allowing the media to pick up the story. This happened in 2017, when rulings against six UK universities were issued. But, the following year, ten complaints were “informally resolved”, according to the ASA website.

My FOI requests reveal, for instance, that the University of Chichester implied that a course had a professional accreditation that, in fact, had not been granted. Roehampton University claimed to be ranked the best modern university in London based on the Complete University Guide 2018, despite the guide’s having no such category. The University of the West of Scotland claimed to be in the top three per cent in world university rankings when, if fact, it is mid-table; and the University of South Wales inaccurately claimed that 100 per cent of graduates on one course were in employment or in further study within six months of graduating.

One of the six universities named in the 2017 rulings, the University of Strathclyde, was found again to be at fault, this time for describing Glasgow as an “affordable city for students to live” when a recent ranking by a bank had placed it last for student affordability.

It is likely that other misleading claims go undetected or unreported since the ASA relies solely on incoming complaints, rather than proactively reviewing marketing materials. A new approach is clearly required.

First, there should be no hiding of offences. The threat of publicly being named and shamed should make accurate advertising a higher priority for university managers. The ASA must publish details of informally resolved cases, including what the false claim was and the truth behind it, and an annual press release collating these details should be distributed to the media.

Second, any university found to have breached the rules should be required to comply with the CMA’s guidelines by making a public statement of correction or clarification. This should be promoted via the same marketing channels as the original claim was made, and must additionally be communicated to any current or potential students who may have been exposed to the false claim.

Third, potential students, the public and faculty must be helped to become better watchdogs. The ASA should place adverts in publications read by academics and students that explain what constitutes misleading advertising in the context of higher education, providing examples and details of how to make a complaint. The guidelines should also be promoted via social media.

It is disappointing that such incentives are needed. But if nothing changes, students will still be making life-changing decisions based on inaccurate information.

John Bradley is a consultant educational psychologist and independent researcher, working with university students with additional needs.

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