A website and a social media post for Teesside University:
a. The website www.tees.ac.uk, seen on 1 August 2017, featured text stating “Top university in England for long-term graduate prospects. Government longitudinal outcomes data 2016”.
b. The paid-for tweet from the Teesside University Twitter account, dated 5 July 2017, stated “The top uni in England for long-term graduate prospects. Apply for Sep ‘17”.
The complainant, who believed the cited government data indicated that average earnings of Cambridge University graduates after five years were higher than those of graduates from Teesside University, challenged whether the claim “Top university in England for long-term graduate prospects” was misleading and could be substantiated.
Teesside University said that the term “graduate prospects” was common parlance in the higher education sector in reference to graduate outcomes, especially relating to graduates continuing on to further study and employment, and that the term was not generally related to earnings. It provided examples of other organisations in the sector referring to graduate prospects to mean the destination of students after graduating to employment or further study, rather than earnings. The examples included the methodologies behind widely recognised university league tables and the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s (HESA) destination surveys of leavers of higher education. Additionally, it stated that as the ads in question referred specifically to “prospects” and not earnings, it was predominantly focused on whether graduates had continued on to employment and/or further study rather than their levels of pay.
Teesside University stated that the claim was based on their results in the published “SFR60/2016 I December 2016” government report exploring “Employment and earnings outcomes of higher education graduates: experimental statistics using the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data: further breakdowns”. It referred to one of the data sets provided with the report titled “Activity of graduates by higher education institution (HEI) and sex one, three and five years after graduation: comparisons with and without self-assessment data”. Teesside University stated that it was the highest scoring university with 84.9% of graduates in further study or employment after five years (for both male and female), and provided evidence of its results in the report. The dataset for “Further study, sustained employment or both (%)” five years after graduation had been used as its measure of long-term graduate prospects.
Teesside University also said that no dataset in any of the cited data, or any previous Longitudinal Educational Outcomes or Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education data, evaluated graduate earnings by provider or contained the average earnings of graduates from Teesside or Cambridge University.
The ASA considered that the claim “Top university in England for long-term graduate prospects” was likely to be understood by consumers as an objective fact but with a variety of possible meanings, including the likelihood of gaining employment after graduation, the accessibility to jobs at particular levels or, within particular specialisms, career trajectory and/or earning potential.
We acknowledged that Teesside University’s claim was based on the cited longitudinal outcomes data from 2016, published by the government at www.gov.uk, and this was referenced in ad (a). However we noted that the source of data behind the claim, a dataset that also scored institutions on other variables such as the percentage of graduates in employment or further education after one and three years, did not appear to attribute the top score to Teesside University in all areas among English universities. The ads did not specify the length of time from which graduate outcomes had been measured in the dataset that formed the basis of the claim. We considered that the data from the cited longitudinal outcomes research was open to interpretation and the overarching report had not explicitly identified Teesside University as the top performer for graduate prospects. We therefore considered the explanation and documentary evidence provided by Teesside University to not have sufficiently substantiated the claim it intended to make, which was that it was the “Top university” for long-term graduate prospects. Furthermore, the ads did not make sufficiently clear that the claim was based on the university’s interpretation of the government data.
We also noted that the overarching cited government longitudinal report from 2016, which explored educational outcomes, reported generally on both graduate earnings and employment destinations. This report was part of a wider collection of research containing another report on graduate outcomes published in June 2017. The accompanying underlying data showed the average earnings of graduates by university and subject, including for Teesside and Cambridge Universities, as cited by the complainant. This data included examples of subjects in which average earnings for graduates from Cambridge were higher than their counterparts at Teesside after five years. Therefore we considered that Teesside University had not demonstrated it was the “top university” for all possible interpretations of the term “graduate prospects”, such as earnings.
We considered that the claim of “top university” for long-term graduate prospects had been presented by Teesside University in the ads as an objective fact. However the term “graduate prospects” was a fairly broad definition that could be interpreted in various ways. In the absence of qualification, the ads did not make clear the basis of the claim as the university’s own analysis of the cited government data, rather than a finding stated explicitly in the longitudinal outcomes report. Based on this and a lack of evidence to substantiate the intended claim, we concluded that the ads were likely to mislead.
The ads breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 3.1 Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so. (Misleading advertising), 3.7 3.7 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation. (Substantiation), 3.9 3.9 Marketing communications must state significant limitations and qualifications. Qualifications may clarify but must not contradict the claims that they qualify. (Qualification) and 3.33 3.33 Marketing communications that include a comparison with an identifiable competitor must not mislead, or be likely to mislead, the consumer about either the advertised product or the competing product. (Comparisons).
The ads should not appear again in the current form. We told Teesside University to ensure that it held robust data to substantiate comparative claims in future. We also told them to ensure that the basis of comparative claims was made clear, particularly when citing reports or data by other bodies which were open to interpretation, and by sufficiently qualifying the meaning of broad terms such as “graduate prospects”, which could be interpreted in a number of ways.