The advertising watchdog has banned “misleading” claims by six UK universities about their rankings, student satisfaction and graduate prospects.
Falmouth, Teesside, East Anglia, Leicester, Strathclyde and West London universities have all been told to remove claims found by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to be misleading and unsubstantiated from their websites and other marketing material and warned that they must hold relevant data to back up their ads in future.
The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) will also be issuing guidance off the back of the rulings later this week to “help universities stick to the rules”.
The ASA found that Falmouth University was unable to substantiate its claim to be the “UK’s No 1 Arts University” and was therefore likely to mislead consumers after two people, one an academic, complained that there were no specific arts or creative categories in university league tables and that there were other higher ranking universities offering creative courses.
Falmouth University stated its claims were based on a defined subset of “Arts Universities” by The Times and Sunday Times University League Table, and it was also ranked as the number one “Arts University” within the same subset in the Guardian University Guide and Complete University Guide in 2017.
The ASA found a claim by Teesside University that it was the “top university in England for long-term graduate prospects” was misleading, as was the University of East Anglia’s assertion that it was in the “top 5 for student satisfaction”.
It also banned a paid-for Facebook post for the University of Leicester claiming that the institution was “a top 1% world university” and “A World Ranked University”, and the University of Strathclyde’s claim on its physics page that it was “rated number one in the UK for research”.
A regional press advertorial for the University of West London featuring the claim that it was “named as London’s top modern university – and one of the top 10 in the UK – in the Guardian University Guide 2018” has been banned from appearing again.
The universities said they based their claims on independent assessments provided by compilers of national and international league tables, including the Centre for World University Rankings, the Times Higher Education World University rankings , the Best Global University Rankings and the QS World University Rankings.
In June, Reading University agreed to remove a claim that it was among the “top 1%” of universities worldwide following a complaint to the ASA.
At the time, the university’s head of corporate communications Charles Heymann said he welcomed the clarification over how universities can present global rankings but said the ASA needed to investigate “every single other UK university which claims it is in the top 1% in the world, rather than waiting for individual complaints to be made”.
ASA chief executive Guy Parker said: “Our 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.
“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.
“As well as sending this, we’re also issuing new guidance to help universities get their ads right so students can be confident they’ll get what they pay for.”
A Universities UK spokesman said: “Universities take their responsibilities to use data appropriately in advertising and marketing extremely seriously. With a proliferation of university rankings, data and awards now in existence, there is a need for clearer guidelines for universities in how they use this in a way which is clearly understood by students as well as by those working in the sector.
“Universities UK is already in contact with the Advertising Standards Authority and we are keen to work with them on promoting guidance and good practice among our members.”
The University of Leicester said: “At the University of Leicester we take facts and figures seriously, and we don’t set out to mislead or confuse prospective students or other interested parties.
“We are 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.”
Falmouth University said it was “disappointed” with the ruling.
A spokesman said: “We attributed our ‘number one arts university’ status to the Sunday Times league table and the body responsible for compiling the table wrote in our support during this investigation.
“We have not used this phrase in our literature for some time so therefore this ruling does not have any impact on our current or future marketing, and so there is no merit in an appeal.”
A University of Strathclyde spokeswoman said: “The ASA clearly agreed that we had provided evidence of being ranked number one for physics research by the Times Higher Education’s analysis of REF 2014 – the independent national assessment of research in the UK.
” While we are disappointed with the ruling, we have included an additional reference to the Times Higher Education in our statement.”
Teesside University said: ” We strongly believe that the marketing message was accurate but we respect the decision of the ASA and welcome CAP’s first, and necessary, guidance for the sector.
“As soon as we were made aware of the ASA’s enquiry, we removed the message from all marketing communications.”
The University of West London said: “UWL has fully complied with the ASA ruling. The advertising that was the subject of investigation has been removed and will not appear in our future marketing materials.”