A regional press advertorial for the University of West London (UWL), seen on 20 June 2017, featured text stating that UWL was “named as London’s top modern university - and one of the top 10 in the UK - in the Guardian University Guide 2018”.
The complainant, who believed UWL was not one of the top universities in the UK in the Guardian University Guide 2018, challenged whether the claim “top 10 in the UK” was misleading and could be substantiated.
The University of West London (UWL) said that the claim was based on their ranking in the Guardian University Guide 2018, in which they were positioned 58th overall in the UK. It stated that the accepted definition of modern university in the educational sector was: “The term new universities, synonymous with post-1992 universities or modern universities, refers to former polytechnics and central institutions that were given university status through the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, as well as institutions that have been granted university status since 1992 without receiving a royal charter”. Based on this definition, the UWL said it had identified the other modern universities in the UK in the University Guide 2018 and deduced that it was ranked ninth overall within this pool. Therefore, it concluded that it was ranked in the top ten modern universities in the UK and also in the top position within London.
The UWL said that in a broader definition of modern universities, four other universities with origins in art specialisms or teacher training would also be included. It considered that these institutions were different in character to the group and they were granted university status later than the former polytechnic institutions in 1992. However, it said if these four additional institutions were included in the pool of modern universities in the Guardian University Guide 2018, then the UWL would be ranked 13th of modern universities in the UK. It provided evidence to demonstrate its overall ranking in the Guardian University Guide 2018 and within the sub-group of modern universities.
The UWL acknowledged that the advertorial had been published in error and that the wording of the advertorial was ambiguous as it could have been interpreted to mean that the UWL was ranked in the top ten of all universities in the UK. However, it said that the intended meaning was that the UWL was one of the top ten modern universities in the UK. It also noted that it would not have been logical for it to make the primary claim “London’s top modern university” if it was the case that UWL was in the top 10 universities overall in the UK. It said a claim to be in the top 10 universities overall would be the logical primary claim as it was a greater achievement, and it considered readers would have been likely to therefore understood the claim in this intended sense.
The ASA considered that the average consumer was likely to interpret “London’s top modern university - and one of the top 10 in the UK” in the context of the advertorial to mean that the UWL had been ranked directly by the Guardian University Guide as the top modern university in London and one of the top ten modern universities in the UK.
We also considered that “modern university” was a fairly broad term with the potential to be interpreted in various ways. We considered that consumers would be likely to have general understanding of the term “modern university” as universities that were formerly polytechnic institutions or awarded university status relatively recently. However in the absence of qualification in the ad, we thought it unlikely that most consumers would be aware of the finer details of the definition of “modern” provided by the UWL, such as “post-1992”, or able to differentiate whether specific universities were “modern” as sector specific or historic knowledge would be required. In particular, we thought that young people below the age of 18, whom the ad appeared to be targeted at, amongst others would be less likely to be aware of the precise nature of this “modern university” definition as it was grounded in legislation introduced in the early nineties before their childhood. We therefore considered that it was not clear which universities UWL were comparing itself to in the ad.
We acknowledged that UWL’s claim was based on the results of the published Guardian University Guide 2018. However, there did not appear to be a specific category that ranked “modern” universities in the Guardian’s league table, therefore it was UWL that had concluded that it was in the top ten modern universities in the UK by narrowing the pool of other institutions based on their definition of a modern university. We therefore considered it was misleading for the UWL to state that it had been directly “named” in the top ten by the Guardian University Guide, as this specific category of modern universities was absent from the league table.
Furthermore, the four additional universities referred to by UWL that could also be broadly defined as “modern” were ranked above UWL in the Guardian University Guide 2018. However they had not been included in the subgroup of modern universities by the UWL, and this exclusion resulted in UWL’s top 10 ranking. Insufficient evidence was provided to demonstrate that these four universities could be clearly differentiated from the other group of universities that the UWL considered as “modern”, therefore we considered that the UWL’s claim of ranking within the “top ten” of modern universities in the UK had not been substantiated.
We considered that the claim “named … the top 10 in the UK - in the Guardian University Guide 2018” had been presented in the ad as an objective fact, and in the absence of qualification this was ambiguous. We were also concerned that the evidence did not appear to support the claim that UWL had intended to make. We therefore concluded that the ad was likely to mislead.
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. (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 ad should not appear again in its current form. We told the University of West London to ensure that it held robust data to substantiate comparative claims in future and that the basis and source of its claims were clear to consumers, for example clearly identifying whether it was directly named or ranked by a third-party league table. Claims including broad terms such as “modern university”, with the potential to be interpreted in differing ways, should also be qualified sufficiently.