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Plus ça change: old debates over the purpose of HE rumble on

Dave Hall, Registrar and Chief Operating Officer at the University of Leicester, finds the long-running argument over whether higher education's primary purpose is utilitarian or more holistic continues to dominate debate in the media on developments in the sector.

Universities must publish evidence to back ads claims, says new guidance

Universities which use terms like “number 1” or “leading” in advertisements need to include evidence to substantiate the claims, according to new advice.

The Committees of Advertising Practice, which writes the advertising codes, has issued guidance to the sector following rulings by the Advertising Standards Authority which found that six universities had published “misleading” adverts.

In the short, online guidance, universities are warned that it is “essential” that they hold documentary evidence to substantiate a comparative claim. The information should be accessible to the average consumer, who is unlikely to have sector specific knowledge, and should be included in the marketing material or signposted, it said.

Comparative claims, for example “No.1” or “Top 5”, based on a ranking or analysis by an independent party, should not be presented as “objective facts”, and should be sourced by publishing the name and date of the report or league table results on which the claim is based.

Universities are also told to avoid ambiguous terms such as “modern university” or “prospects”, unless sufficient qualification of their meaning is given.

For instance, an advertisement for the University of the West of London which stated “named as London’s top modern university - and one of the top 10 in the UK - in the Guardian University Guide 2018” was ruled misleading by the ASA, which considered that, in the absence of qualification, the term “modern universities” was ambiguous.

Exaggerated claims may also fall foul of the regulator. The University of Strathclyde was told to change an advertisement which included a headline which stated “We’re ranked No.1 in the UK”, with text below this stating “The Department of Physics at the University of Strathclyde, in the centre of Glasgow, has been rated number one in the UK for research in the REF 2014.” 

The ASA found that the University only provided evidence of being ranked as “No.1” for physics research by the Times Higher Education's analysis of the REF 2014 results, rather than directly by the REF 2014 assessment.

Universities UK is now consulting with the ASA on guidance to universities.

A UUK spokesperson 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.”

 

 

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