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Students need clarity when choosing a university

Alex Hayman from Which? University details their work on comparative claims in university advertising
This article is more than 5 years old

Alex Hayman is Managing Director of Which? University

When applying to university, prospective students are bombarded with a lot of information.

This includes statistics about relative placings in league tables and official rankings, with many claiming to be in the top few per cent in the world. While such details may help students make their decision, we were concerned that some figures could be potentially misleading.

It has been almost a year since the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a number of complaints about misleading information in HE. Despite the clear warnings, we’ve investigated and found at least six universities included examples of unsubstantiated or unverifiable claims about their standing on their websites, in likely breach of advertising standards. This just isn’t good enough.

Here’s what we found:

  • Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University described itself as “one of the world’s leading universities for pioneering research informed by the needs of business and industry.” This claim was not supported by accessible facts or figures on the website and Heriot-Watt University is ranked in the 351-400 category out of 1,103 institutions in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2018. Following a letter from Which? University, Heriot-Watt explained that its links with business support its claim, which it stands by.
  • Aston University claimed it was “ranked within the top 35 universities in all university ranking tables.” However, there was no information included to substantiate the claim. Aston explained that this statement referred to employability metrics rather than its overall ranking position. It agreed this was ambiguous and has removed the claim from its website.
  • University of Aberdeen claimed to be “ranked consistently among the world’s top universities”, but did not verify this claim on its website. The university told us that it will alter its website to provide clearer supporting information.
  • Newcastle University included a “Key Facts” document on its website that stated it was in the top 1% in the QS World University Rankings. It was placed 141st in the current table, putting it in the top 15% of ranked institutions. Following a letter from Which? University, Newcastle has removed this from its website.
  • Ulster University stated that it “is in the top 3% of universities in the world” when it was placed in the 501-600 category out of in the 1,103 THE World University Rankings in 2018, putting it mid-tier. In response to our letter, Ulster University said its figure was based on the total number of HE institutions worldwide (around 26,000), rather than the number ranked by each of the global league tables.
  • University of the West of Scotland claimed that it “ranked in the top 3% of universities worldwide” in its Google search descriptor. UWS also came in the 501-600 band in the THE World University Rankings 2018. The university responded our questions saying that where comparative claims are made on its website it always ensures that it has sufficient data to back up any claim and makes the basis of the claim clear.

Making claims meaningful

One of our main concerns is that it is not always clear how universities substantiate comparative claims, nor are such claims easy for prospective students to verify. In addition, isolated claims that an establishment is in the “top 1%” or “top 3%” may be misunderstood by students as the estimated figure for the total number of universities in the world varies (the Times Higher Education World University Rankings in 2018 uses a 20,000 figure, whereas others estimate the number is higher) and not all universities are formally ranked. We think it would be more meaningful for universities to say where they were ranked in a specific table, for example “top 200” or “top 600”.

It is critical that prospective students can understand the facts that HE institutions are putting forward. Universities will expect students to submit accurate and properly referenced work throughout their degrees. Is it too much to ask that the same expectation be put on universities for its marketing materials? We want universities to act responsibly in line with ASA guidelines as thousands across the country prepare to apply for the next step of their education in the coming weeks and months.

3 responses to “Students need clarity when choosing a university

  1. Universities should believe QS’s BS. When the ASA ruling broke they tried to defend the top 1% (as claimed by Reading) with the notion there must be at least 26000 universities and they must be broadly able to justify that they’ve caught the top 1000 or so in their league table. They said:

    “So, 188 / 26000 = 0.72%. Can Reading defend the claim that they are within the top 1% of higher education institutions in the world? With a confidence level in excess of 97%, yes, they can… even without a definitive list of the world’s universities. That’s a lot more certainty than many well-known advertising slogans have needed over the years.”

    It’s a duff claim, of course. Best to drop it.

  2. Of course universities should be held to account for the various claims they make to encourage students to apply, but it is what happens after they apply that misleads students more than anything.
    For a start, students don’t really choose an institution – the institution chooses them. Once selected and given an ‘offer’ the student will begin to receive marketing as if they have a place. Correspondence arrives littered with words such as ‘congratulations’ and ‘welcome’. Students with an offer will be required to select accommodation and ensure finance is in place.
    It is this part of the process that needs urgent attention and universities need to be held to account for the false sense of certainty this can give students.

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