Recent articles in the Daily Telegraph and elsewhere report a disconcerting number of universities being referred to – and in some cases sanctioned by – the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over misleading claims in their advertising. In fact, just yesterday six universities were instructed by the advertising watchdog to take down adverts that could be misleading because of "exaggerated claims".

The Telegraph article cites several examples, including a “University of the Year” award that turned out to be a regional accolade, a university that claimed in generic terms to have “gold standard” teaching quality when it had been awarded only a silver grade in the latest Teaching Excellence Framework ratings, and a university advancing an unsubstantiated claim to be in the top 1% of universities globally.

You might be wondering why on Earth universities are stretching the very truth their mission is generally to seek… and what this means for you if you’re considering universities to apply to. Fear not, we have answers…

Why are universities pushing the boundaries of transparent advertising in this way?

Quite simply, because the marketplace demands it. Universities were once heavily subsidised public bodies, but less and less of their income comes from the public purse. Hence correspondingly, more has to be sourced from their “client base” – i.e. students, especially the lucrative international student market – and from other initiatives including partnerships with businesses.

The amount of revenue a university can generate is connected with its prestige in a kind of mutually reinforcing feedback loop. Revenue generation is actually a key criterion used for ranking a university in lists such as the Contact UsTHE Global Rankings list, and the higher universities come in those lists the more likely they are to attract high-calibre students and researchers, and increase their turnover and prestige still further. For the top universities, this is a highly profitable self-sustaining process. For the rest, it’s easy to see how a loss of revenue and corresponding slip down the rankings table can also lead to a self-sustaining process – in a far less positive way!

All this is juxtaposed with an ever-more discerning client base. Tuition fees have risen sharply over the past decade, and students are increasingly forced to incur a massive debt burden in order to pursue a degree. However, the fees charged by universities (at least in the domestic market) generally aren’t proportional to the quality and prestige of degree on offer; it costs roughly the same to study at a university that’s in the top 10 globally as one that’s ranked between 500 and 1000.

The best value of money, therefore, comes from the universities with the highest levels of prestige, where almost every class is delivered by a world-leading scholar, and the mere mention of whose name might make the difference in a hyper-competitive job market. It’s therefore unsurprising (if inexcusable) that universities below the very top rung are increasingly looking for ways of associating themselves with Oxbridge and Ivy League levels of prestige through misleading and selective use of statistics.

How do I know if I’m getting value for money when I apply to a degree course?

Encouragingly, the ASA has responded swiftly to ensure that the standards to which advertising by universities, like any other business or organisation, are supposed to adhere are being rigorously enforced. Several universities have been forced to change the wording of their advertisements or remove spurious claims. But there are a few things you can do to minimise or eliminate the risk of being duped by less-than-accurate statements:

  • Beware of phrases like “gold-standard” or “world-leading” that imply some kind of formal assessment has been undertaken. These are actually just adjectives that can be defended as subjective or a matter of opinion.
  • Pay attention to the scope of awards a university has received. “# 1 university” can mean anything, from having come top in a global ranking exercise, to being the best university in its city or region. The body that has awarded the accolade should be listed somewhere in the small print.
  • Check the position of any university you’re considering in reputable global university rankings lists such as the THE or QS lists.
  • Know however, that there’s far more to quality of education than rankings alone. Depending on your subject area, a small university or college that specialises in the area you want to study might offer you better-quality tuition and support than a globally leading university.

Ultimately, there are few universities that don’t offer very high-quality tuition and student care in at least some areas. The key is to make use of all the information resources at your disposal to make the best possible decision for you. Unfortunately, in the current competitive marketplace that may mean looking beyond and between the lines of what a university has to say about itself!