Advertising watchdogs have reprimanded six British universities for making marketing claims that could be misleading to potential students.

How embarrassing – and its follows similar action against the University of Reading earlier this year when it agreed with the Advertising Standards Authority, or ASA, to ‘phase out’ its claim to be in the global ‘top 1%’.

The BBC also discovered that two other universities had already agreed with the ASA to ‘clarify advertising’.

The University of Bedfordshire claimed to have ‘gold standard’ teaching quality – when it held a silver award in the new teaching excellence ratings, while Liverpool John Moores University was challenged after claiming to be ‘university of the year’ when it actually won a regional title in this year’s ‘Educate North Awards’.

The culprit, then and now, was how the universities chose to put their own spin on their position in various rankings and government statistics.

The ASA was firm in its warning against making exaggerated claims to attract students, with chief executive Guy Parker telling the BBC students need ‘good evidence’ when making such a big financial commitment.

“Misleading would-be students is not only unfair, it can also lead them to make choices that aren’t right for them,” said Mr Parker. He told universities: “If you’re making claims about your national or global ranking, student satisfaction or graduate prospects, make sure you practise what you teach… by backing up your claims with good evidence.”

Complaints upheld

  • Falmouth University – told to stop describing itself as ‘the UK’s number one arts university’ or ‘the UK’s number one creative university’.
  • Teesside University – having a complaint upheld for saying it was the ‘top university in England for long-term graduate prospects’.
  • University of East Anglia – told to stop using the claim ‘Top 5 for student satisfaction’.
  • University of Leicester – to stop claiming to be ‘a top 1% world university’.
  • University of Strathclyde ­– told to change the claim ‘We’re ranked No. 1 in the UK’ for physics.
  • University of West London – told to cease claiming to be ‘London’s top modern university – and one of the top 10 in the UK’.

Avoid misleading inadvertently

As a member of the PR and Communications Council of the National Union of Journalists, who helped to draw up the Union’s ‘Should I say that? A guide to the rights and wrongs of PR practice’, I can only repeat point three in the NUJ’s ethical public relations guidelines.

This says members should ‘refuse to disseminate false or misleading information and take care to avoid doing so inadvertently’.

But not everyone in a university communication and marketing department is a member of the NUJ, or one of the professional public relations or marketing bodies.

And the pressure to grasp at any handy league table or ranking, or even official forecasts, to project an institution in a more favourable light can be overwhelming – especially if a vice-chancellor is desperate to paint a more favourable picture in these highly competitive times.

But that’s why we – professional communication staff and consultants – are there to warn leaders not to go too far and to remind them that the best PR practice is to tell the truth.

I know this isn’t the image sometimes portrayed about marketing and PR folk, but I remember only too well advising my bosses to stick to the facts when I was managing a university press and PR office.

And now we have these complaints upheld and demands by the ASA to remove misleading and unsubstantiated claims from websites and social media.

Guidelines to help ‘stick to the rules’

But despite the embarrassing headlines, some good should come out of the saga as the Committee of Advertising Practice, or CAP, is issuing some useful guidelines ‘to help universities stick to the rules.

It should be pretty obvious stuff, such as: ‘Advertisers should ensure that the claims they make do not exaggerate or go further than the evidence held’ and ‘that all comparisons with identifiable competitors must be verifiable’.

But it will be powerful ammunition for PR and communication people working at the chalk face who will be able to quote the code when under pressure to go further than they believe to be right and proper.

Not that all the universities forced to withdraw their so-called ‘misleading’ marketing messages feel they have done wrong. The University of Leicester told the BBC: “We don’t set out to mislead or confuse prospective students”.

Teesside University believed its marketing message was accurate

Teesside University, while agreeing to remove the claim of being the ‘top university in England for long-term graduate prospects’, told ITV News: “We strongly believe that the marketing message was accurate, but we respect the decision of the Advertising Standards Agency and welcome the Committee of Advertising Practice’s first, and necessary, guidance for the sector.”

Universities UK, which represents British university vice-chancellors, also appeared to welcome the clarity. Their spokesman told the BBC: “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.”

Emma Leech from Loughborough University

Emma Leech, director of marketing and advancement at Loughborough University and president-elect of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, or CIPR, for 2018, said: “Transparency and authenticity are crucial elements of any university’s marketing and communications activities. Universities have long used facts and figures, including league table positions and related statistics, as ‘points of proof’ in their narrative and boilerplate.

“The new rulings are very clear and there is no excuse for the sector to use misleading statistics. It’s neither ethical nor acceptable. My own institution makes use of our rankings and standing in a range of areas, but we take care to quote the data source and to keep a centralised and regularly updated copy bank – which is dated – to ensure we use data transparently and in a timely way.”