“The best in the UK”? Questions over university marketing claims

Are we really the best in the UK? Let's find out.

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Lancaster University is facing questions over claims in its advertising materials after it was revealed that the University made prominent claims based on a partial survey of UK University accommodation. The news comes against a backdrop of ongoing controversy about truth in university advertising, after six UK institutions in the last month were censured by the Advertising Standards Agency over “misleading” claims.

The 2018 undergraduate prospectus claims that “put simply, our accommodation is the best in the country”, having won the accolade “Best University Halls” by the National Student Housing Survey (NSHS) 2010-2015. But the NSHS surveys just 68 out of 127 registered British universities, raising the possibility that Lancaster may be the latest of a recent string of British universities to fall foul of the advertising regulators.

In fact, Lancaster does not come first in any of the other major surveys of student accommodation. The Whatuni Student Choice Awards which includes 127 registered UK universities places Lancaster seventh for accommodation. The Times Higher Education’s Studentcrowd research places Grizedale College’s accommodation as the seventh best university halls in the UK and places Lancaster as the second highest ranked accommodation overall.

When asked if Lancaster University is misleading prospective students, the University said: “We certainly don’t think that we mislead anyone about our accommodation – we are rightly proud that our accommodation is rated highly by students in surveys such as the National Student Housing Survey. We don’t pay to be part of it and the NSHS is recognised as being credible in the sector with students from 250 universities and colleges taking part in 2017”.

The 250 institutions figure includes private accommodation providers and other higher education providers. Under the precedent set by recent Advertising Standards Agency rulings, a University using the results of an incomplete survey to make a claim that will be interpreted by prospective students as an objective claim to be “the best” could constitute a breach of advertising guidelines.

The National Student Housing Survey is conducted by Red Brick Research, a private research company that the University has contracted to carry out surveys as recently as November 2017.

When asked for comment, the NSHS replied: “The Awards are widely recognised as the most credible and sought-after in the sector. Overarching awards can never, of course, guarantee a particular experience for an individual student or that future performance will reflect past performance”.

Red Brick research has been repeatedly contacted for a full list of participating universities, but have so far declined. Of the universities listed on the website, only three including Lancaster are ranked in the UK’s top ten (as compiled by the Guardian), and only five out 24 of the UK’s Russell Group are listed. The survey has stated: “any information on the websites is, of course, entirely public, but should not be confused with a comprehensive list of participants”.

The University defended its use of NSHS statistics: “We are also very careful to add references to the original surveys and league tables in the prospectus that we are quoting from, to allow students to check out the information for themselves”. However the reference was included on the last page of the prospectus; 160 pages after the claim was made.

The Lancaster University press office added: “Whilst we accept that slightly different explanations are given on the website and prospectus, there is no desire to mislead anyone and the shorter explanation in the prospectus is there in the interests of efficiency of the use of space. However, as SCAN have raised this, and it is obviously not sufficiently clear to you as a reader of the prospectus, that is useful feedback and we will ensure that a fuller explanation is included in the 2019 prospectus”.

In addition, Lancaster University continues to claim a position in the top world 1% of universities, a claim that several universities have recently been slammed for by the Advertising Standards Authority on the grounds that the “rankings have only about 1,000 universities… the 1% claim is based on there being possibly 26,000 universities in the world”, says an article by the BBC.

Lancaster University has made clear that the continued use of the 1% claim was an unintentional consequence of the staggered time frame that University prospectus and advertising campaigns are produced.

“Lancaster made the decision to drop the ‘top 1%’ strapline from its marketing 12 months ago, just after the 2018 prospectus went to print and it will not be part of the future marketing messages we give to students.”

The University has stripped the claim from the front page of its 2018 undergraduate prospectus, where it has sat in previous years, but the claim remains inside the 2018 undergraduate prospectus, on page 48. This prospectus is currently being sent out to students, it can be ordered online and is available in the Welcome Centre, in a bid to recruit and advertise to prospective students. The claim is also found on the front cover of the 2018 international foundation year prospectus.

The University of Reading was criticised by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) after claiming to be in the top 1% of universities worldwide in advertising material. Head of communications at The University of Reading, Charles Heymann, defended the use of the figure, by insisting the university had been placed in “the top 200 of the Times Higher Education Ranking.”

“We accept, though, the ASA’s view that this could not be proved given no league table assesses every single university worldwide. (The ASA) now needs to investigate every single other UK university which claims it is in the top 1% in the world, rather than waiting for individual complaints to be made”.

The ASA has recently ruled against six universities, such as Leicester and Falmouth, on the grounds of unsubstantiated claims in their advertising. The call from Reading for pre-emptive examinations of rival institution’s advertising claims raises the possibility that the regulator may have yet more investigations underway.