British universities continue to put out exaggerated claims about their international reputations, an investigation has found, despite a crackdown by the advertising regulator aimed at putting a stop to misleading assertions about rankings and results.
Which? University found several institutions have persisted in making potentially misleading statements about their positions in global league tables, in one case building a claim into Google search results.
The continued use of assertions about high international status is evidence of the strain universities are under to increase their domestic and international student recruitment, as well as the effects of global rankings.
Alex Hayman, the managing director of Which? University, said: “It is critical that prospective students can trust the facts that higher education institutions are putting forward. However, we’ve found numerous examples of universities falling short.”
Which? found Newcastle University produced a “key facts” document that claimed it was in the top 1% of the QS world university rankings, when it was actually 141st out of 1,000 institutions.
Newcastle removed the claim after being approached by Which?
“Despite being informed by QS that our position puts us in the top 1% of world universities, it is not a particularly meaningful statistic and that’s why we now use ‘ranked in the top 150 by QS 2019’,” a spokesperson said.
Aberdeen University claimed to be ranked consistently among the world’s leading universities, but Which? said it did not verify this.
Phil Hannaford, Aberdeen’s interim senior vice-principal, said: “Aberdeen is highly ranked in the world, and we do not believe that the description of being a top university is misleading.
“This said, we would never want anyone to believe we have misrepresented our position, so we will enhance our website, marketing and other relevant material to provide clearer qualification regards supporting information.”
In several cases Which? highlighted, universities exaggerated their global status by using statistical sleight of hand.
Global league tables typically rank about 1,000 institutions, leaving an estimated 25,000 higher education institutions unranked. Several British universities use their league table ranking to extrapolate their position from the larger number of universities not included in the table.
Among the latest examples, Ulster University claimed to be “in the top 3% of universities in the world”, when it was ranked as low as 600th on one league table, while the University of the West of Scotland included a claim that it “ranked in the top 3% of universities worldwide” in its Google search descriptor.
Last year, the Advertising Standards Authority issued a ruling that criticisedReading University for a misleading claim that it was in the “top 1%” of worldwide universities, despite only being ranked 188th by QS.
The ASA later issued a string of similar rulings on a claim by the University of West London that it was “named as London’s top modern university”, and Falmouth University for an ad saying it was “the UK’s No 1 arts university” without sufficient evidence.
The ASA’s committee of advertising practice said last year: “Choosing a university can be a difficult decision and a big commitment, and it is important that advertisers do not make claims which could mislead would-be students into making the wrong decision.”