Six British universities have been slapped on the wrist for breaking advertising rules by making misleading, exaggerated, or unsubstantiated claims about their league table rankings.
The Advertising Standards Authority said it wanted to send a "clear message" to universities to warn them to back up any claims with "good evidence" after it found
several institutions had fallen foul of guidelines. It said it would draw up new guidance as a result.
The universities of West London, Strathclyde, Falmouth, Leicester, East Anglia, and Teesside were among those to have ads banned by the ASA.
They broke rules around how they interpreted their place in official university league tables and how they used the data to make comparison claims.
The University of West London (UWL) was found to be making the "misleading" claim it was "named as London’s top modern university" – and one of the top 10 in the UK – in the Guardian University Guide 2018 when in fact it was ranked 58th.
UWL told the ASA in its defence that it had come to this conclusion by having re-counted the list to include only "modern" universities, which put it in the top 10. The ASA said that was "misleading". The regulator also raised concerns that, according to its own calculations, that would still not place the university within the top 10 if all "modern" universities were ranked.
The University of Leicester, meanwhile, was found to have claimed in a Facebook advert that it was among the top 1% of universities in the world. It made the claim based on its ranking in three global university league tables that placed it 260th.
Leicester showed BuzzFeed News an email from the Center for World University Rankings from 2017 and 2015, which did say it was in the top 1%.
However, the ASA took issue with the fact that the 1% calculation was based on 26,000 universities worldwide, rather than the 1,000 officially included in the rankings. It said the claim therefore "exaggerated the level of the university’s relative standing worldwide".
Falmouth University claimed it was the top university for arts and creative subjects, though the ASA said that claim was unsubstantiated because in the rankings in question there were not specific "arts” or “creative” categories in place, and that it would be "impossible to filter" the guides by subject.
However, in attempting to do so, the regulator said it still found Falmouth University was still not the number-one university for these subjects.
The University of Strathclyde, meanwhile, was found to have "misleadingly implied" its physics department had been ranked a top-performing department directly by the Research Excellent Framework (REF) in 2014.
The ASA said that it broke the rules because the REF did not formally rank the universities, and therefore the university had misleadingly implied it did when in fact the ranking came from a Times Higher Education analysis of the REF results.
This was problematic, the regulator said, because the REF 2014 results did not formally rank the universities and "thus one could choose a number of different ways to ‘rank’ the listed universities depending on the chosen methodology".
The University of East Anglia’s claim to be in the “Top 5 for student satisfaction” was also found to be misleading by the ASA.
Using National Student Survey data UEA had generated the “Top 5” score with an internal reporting tool and by applying the definition of “English mainstream universities” to the dataset.
In the ruling, however, the ASA said consumers who had seen the advert, which appeared on the university's homepage, would assume UEA had been ranked against all universities.
Teesside University, meanwhile, claimed in a paid-for tweet to be a “top university in England for long-term graduate prospects” but the ASA said it could not substantiate this.
The ASA said the data cited was open to interpretation, and that the source of the data did not explicitly identify Teesside University as the top performer for graduate prospects or appear to attribute the top score to Teesside in all areas among English universities.
ASA CEO Guy Parker 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."
Here's what the universities said in response:
A spokesperson for the University of West London told BuzzFeed News the claim had now been removed. He 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.”
The University of Leicester said it did not "set out to mislead or confuse prospective students or other interested parties" and had based its rankings on independent assessments.
"We are disappointed that the ASA differs in their interpretation of the rankings from the compilers of the tables themselves," a spokesperson said. "While we disagree with the ASA on their assessment methodology, we will abide by their ruling."
A spokesperson for Falmouth University said: "While we must accept the ruling, we are disappointed that the ASA made this decision. 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."
A spokeswoman for the University of Strathclyde 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. The Times Higher Education table is drawn solely from REF data. In common with at least 60 other universities, we attributed the ranking to REF for this reason."
A University of East Anglia spokesperson said it would stop using this wording but added that the classification it had used, "English mainstream", was a widely used one. "UEA remains extremely proud of its consistently high student satisfaction rates,” she said.
A spokesman for Teesside University told BuzzFeed News the claim had now been removed but "was based on government data which showed 84.9% of Teesside graduates were in further study, sustained employment, or both after five years and, excluding colleges and conservatoires, placed Teesside as the top university in the country using this measure".
"We strongly believe that the marketing message was accurate, but we respect the decision."
Sara Spary is a consumer business correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Sara Spary at email@example.com.
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