A website for the University of Strathclyde, www.strath.ac.uk, seen on 8 June 2017 featured a webpage titled “Physics” that included a headline stating “We’re ranked No.1 in the UK”. Below this featured text stating “The Department of Physics at the University of Strathclyde, in the centre of Glasgow, has been rated number one in the UK for research in the REF 2014”.
The complainant, an academic, who believed that the University of Strathclyde’s physics department was not ranked number one for research in the UK, challenged whether the claim “No.1 in the UK” was misleading and could be substantiated.
The University of Strathclyde said the claim was based on the results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), a government funded system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions. It stated that as the most recent assessment took place in 2014, these results were the most comprehensive and up-to-date review, and the results formed the basis of higher education research funding until the next assessment in 2021. It provided evidence of its results in the “REF 2014”, in which it received a percentage score on the proportion of its submission judged to meet each of four starred levels and a number indicating how many full-time equivalent staff members contributed to the submission.
The University of Strathclyde said the Times Higher Education also published an analysis of the REF 2014 including an “Institutions Ranked by Subject” table that ranked the various universities by subject. The University of Strathclyde was ranked first overall for research in physics, based on the Grade Point Average in the Times Higher Education’s league table.
The ASA considered that in the context of the ad and the qualification presented below it, the average consumer would interpret the claim “We’re ranked No.1 in the UK” to mean the University of Strathclyde had been ranked by the REF 2014 as the top performing physics department in the UK for research.
We acknowledged that in the published REF 2014 results 40% of the University of Strathclyde’s physics submission was assessed to be at world leading level (4*), and 56% at an internationally excellent level (3*). We noted the university’s staff submissions (27.00) were lower than those of other institutions and this had been taken into account in the weighting of the quality scores by the REF 2014 assessment. However, the REF 2014 results did not formally rank the universities so we considered these results to be open to interpretation, thus one could choose a number of different ways to ‘rank’ the listed universities depending on the chosen methodology.
The University of Strathclyde only provided evidence of being ranked as “No.1” for physics research by the Times Higher Education's analysis of the REF 2014 results, rather than directly by the REF 2014 assessment. The Times Higher Education’s analysis of the REF 2014 results was based on its calculation of a Grade Point Average score for each university by subject and universities were then ranked in a league table by order of its Grade Point Average. We therefore considered that the ad should have made clear that the basis of the “No. 1” claim was the ranking by the Times Higher Education rather than the REF 2014. Because the ad misleadingly implied the REF 2014 had ranked the University of Strathclyde as the top performing physics department, we concluded that the ad was misleading.
The ad 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. (Qualifications) 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 ad should not appear again in its current form. We told the University of Strathclyde to ensure that it held robust data to substantiate comparative claims in future and that it should not suggest that it had been ranked as “No. 1” directly by the REF 2014.