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Universities to be warned over misleading adverts

Universities are going to face a crackdown on how they advertise and market courses to attract students.

With hundreds of thousands of young people in the process of applying, universities are going to be warned by the advertising watchdog that they need to prove the accuracy of their claims.

It is expected that universities will be told not to mislead or exaggerate in language used in adverts for students.

They will scrutinise claims such as being in the “top 1%”.

The University of Reading has already had to take down its claim to be the top 1% of the world’s universities, because it could not be objectively substantiated.

Next week the Advertising Standards Authority is expected to identify up to six more universities which have breached the advertising code – along with issuing tougher guidelines on what is permissible language in marketing.

Image copyright University of Reading Image caption The University of Reading had to stop saying it was in the top 1% in the world

It has emerged that two universities have already agreed to clarify advertising.

The watchdog says the University of Bedfordshire faced a complaint about claiming to have “gold standard” teaching quality – when the university held a silver award in the new teaching excellence ratings.

Liverpool John Moores University was challenged over being more specific about its claim to be “university of the year”.

It won the title in this year’s “Educate North Awards”.

‘Competing for students’

Universities are competing for students and their fee income and have been putting increasing efforts into how they appeal to potential applicants, selling marketing information on websites and on open days.

There has been a proliferation of league tables and rankings which are used to base claims about “world class” status for universities or individual degree courses.

The advertising watchdog has been considering whether university claims are justified by any “objective substantiation” – and without “adequate substantiation”, can rule them to be “misleading”.

If advertisers persistently refuse to accept rulings from the watchdog, they can be referred to trading standards officers, who could impose fines.

But the advertising watchdog says advertisers are more likely to comply rather than face “bad publicity”.

The University of Reading was told in the summer that it could be “materially misleading” to market itself as being in the top 1% of all world universities – a claim made by several other UK universities.

The claim had been based on Reading’s ranking in a number of international league tables – but without a clear agreement over how many universities there are in the world, such a claim was deemed as unacceptable.

The university agreed to remove the claim and the complaint was “informally resolved” without a formal investigation or ruling.

But it is understood that the issue was then raised with wider university representative groups – because many universities make such specific claims about their international reputations.

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