University challenged: comparative claims in higher education

Comparative claims are a great way for universities to showcase their results and stand out to prospective students. These claims may be based on results and rankings in published university league tables or assessments of performance by other bodies. But universities must make sure that ads do not mislead and always represent such rankings or analysis accurately.

As the new academic year begins, and in light of a new ruling, here is our re-‘freshers’ guide on how universities can keep on top of comparative claims.

1. Ensure you hold supporting evidence

Before making a comparative claim in your advertising, it’s a requirement that you hold the relevant documentary evidence to substantiate it. The evidence must support a claim in the way that it’s likely to be interpreted by the average consumer, who is unlikely to have sector-specific knowledge.

2. Make the basis of your claim clear

There are various widely recognised ranking systems for higher educational institutions, rather than one single comparative authority. Ads must make clear to consumers the basis and source of any comparative claim that presents any information or ‘ranking’ from another body. For example, an objective or absolute “No. 1” or “Top 10 in the UK” claim should clearly state the name and date of the relevant report or league table results on which it is based.

Make sure any comparative claim you use can be easily understood by the average consumer or prospective student and makes very clear the other institutions you are comparing yourself with, or any specific point of comparison. Avoid using broad terms that are ambiguous or could be interpreted in different ways, such “arts university” or “modern university” without sufficient qualification of its meaning, or phrases that require specific knowledge of higher education.

Also, keep in mind that comparative claims against identifiable competitors must be verifiable. Ads should include the relevant information to enable or signpost consumers to check any comparisons themselves.

3. Represent the evidence accurately

Any reference to ‘rankings’ or being ‘named’ in independently published results, such as university league tables, must be a genuine and accurate reflection of that analysis. A comparative claim should only refer to rankings or results in categories that are explicitly stated and defined in the data source on which it is based.

Claims that rely on a reworking or manipulation of published data, such as by incorporating a further layer of your own analysis to the results, are likely to mislead without clear explanation of how the claim was deduced. 

For example, a University of Leicester ruling this week concluded the claim “Our Arts and Humanities research is number 1 in the UK for overall research quality (GPA) in #REF2021” was misleading. The ASA considered the basis of the comparative claim was not sufficiently clear as it did not state that the ranking had been calculated by the university itself using the Times Higher Education methodology, rather than a finding explicitly stated in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 report, nor otherwise explain how the result was deduced.

You can find further examples of rulings on comparative claims by universities here and if you need further, bespoke advice on your non-broadcast ads, our Copy Advice team are happy to help.

More on

  • Keep up to date

    Sign up to our rulings, newsletters and emargoed access for Press. Subscribe now.