November 16, 2017

“Top 1% in the world.”

“Top university in England for long-term graduate prospects.”

“London’s top modern university – and one of the top 10 in the UK.”

These were among the more spurious claims put forward in the marketing materials of six universities that the Advertising Standards Authority this week singled out for misleading prospective students with trumped-up claims. The decision is noteworthy for its timing: the consumer watchdog is cracking down at a moment when university fees are front-page news. That the ASA received complaints about university prospectuses in the first place signals a shift in how we see universities – from hallowed institutions to which we seek admittance to one of the pricier items on our shopping lists. A big transaction but, still, a transaction.

UnHerd asked Chief Executive Guy Parker about why the ASA chose to intervene now, and what else is coming down the road in the increasingly commercial sphere of education.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Universities have been making boastful statements about their rankings and status for a while. Why did the ASA decide to provide more scrutiny now?

There’s nothing wrong with universities promoting themselves in the best possible light.  But we’ll step in when an advertising claim crosses the line, whether it’s in a paid for space or on a university’s website or social media posts.

Our action follows a case in the summer involving Reading University and its claim to be a “top 1%” world ranking university. It also responds to a series of complaints that other universities have been making similar claims.

Is there really any meaningful way to substantiate a claim like ‘top 1% in the world’?

There may well be if the claim is carefully worded and qualified.  Universities have to follow the same rules that apply to all advertisers – if you’re making an objective claim, make sure it’s presented unambiguously and make sure you can prove it.

“The universities we’ve investigated have responded positively to our findings – even if some of them have disagreed with them.”
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It seems like there’s more advertising for universities than ever. In the US, it’s not uncommon to hear radio commercials complete with jingles. Is that a trend?

The ad landscape surrounding universities has certainly changed in the UK.  Thanks to the introduction of student fees and the removal of the cap, it’s an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Can you give us an idea of what the new guidelines will look like?

It’s common sense stuff, like providing context to universities about how the advertising rules are applied, the kinds of claims that are likely to be problematic, the evidence the ASA is likely to expect you to hold when making a claim and how to avoid breaking the rules.

And we have a range of sanctions that we can impose if an advertiser is unwilling or unable to work with us and follow the rules. That includes, ultimately, referring them for potential statutory action, including fines. But that’s unlikely to happen here.  The universities we’ve investigated have responded positively to our findings – even if some of them have disagreed with them.

Where did the initial complaints come from? Is there any recourse available to students who feel they’ve been duped? 

It’s not an issue that we get many complaints about, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem or that we shouldn’t take action.

Going to university is a big financial commitment and misleading would-be students is not only unfair, it can lead them to make choices that aren’t right for them. In this instance we thought there was a real risk of consumer detriment and that the problem was widespread.

Most people choosing a university are really young – where to go is the first big decision they make for themselves. Even for older folks, it’s not like buying a car or clothes – it’s a highly specialised product. Everyone buying it is an inexperienced consumer. Does that factor into the ASA’s decision?

It does, yes. When judging whether an ad is likely to mislead we use the ‘average consumer test’: what is the likely knowledge and understanding of the average consumer who sees and responds to a claim in the ad?

In these cases, we took into account that the claims are targeted at students, predominantly young, relatively inexperienced consumers. Clearly, they won’t have the same level of understanding about league tables as the marketing department of universities.

Those responsible for crafting and proving the advertising claims need to realise that.

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