Universities: Comparisons

Oct 7th '22

Universities may wish to help prospective students make a decision by making comparisons with other institutions, whether about students’ grades, rankings, teaching, student experience or other aspects. It is important that advertisers do not make claims which could mislead would-be students into making the wrong decision.


The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code requires advertisers to hold documentary evidence to substantiate claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. Additionally, any comparisons with identifiable competitors must be verifiable and comply with other relevant comparisons rules. See also Comparisons: Identifiable competitors, and Comparisons: General.


  • Establish what type of comparative claim you wish to make

When making a claim, you should consider how the reader will interpret it. The meaning of all claims should be clear to consumers. Common types of claims are “best”“no. 1”“leading”, and “ranking” and these claims may have different interpretations, depending on the context in which they are used. Different types of claims will require different types of evidence. For advice on specific types of claims, such as “best” and “no.1” see the following guidance: Types of claims: General.


  • Make sure you hold the relevant evidence

Any claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation must be supported by documentary evidence to substantiate the claim.


An ad for East Anglia University which stated “Top 5 for student satisfaction (National Student Survey 2005-2016)” was ruled against because it did not make it clear what this claim was based on and the advertiser did not have sufficient evidence to substantiate the claim as it would be understood by consumers (University of East Anglia, 15 Nov 2017).


The claim “top 1% world university” was also considered misleading, in the context in which it appeared. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) considered that, in the absence of a qualification, the average consumer would interpret the claim to mean that the University of Leicester had been objectively ranked within the top 1% of all universities in the world. Because the advertiser could not provide evidence of the total number of universities from around the world, the claim could not be substantiated (University of Leicester, 15 September 2017).


  • Make the basis of the claim clear and include necessary qualifications

There are various widely recognised ranking systems for higher educational institutions. Marketing communications must make clear to consumers the basis and source of any comparison that presents any information or ‘ranking’ from another body, for example, the name and date of the relevant report or league table on which it is based.


Terms which have a broad meaning, or are likely to have different consumer interpretations, are likely to be considered ambiguous, and misleading. These claims should be clearly qualified to ensure that the meaning is clear. An ad for UWL which stated “named as London’s top modern university – and one of the top 10 in the UK – in the Guardian University Guide 2018” was ruled misleading by the ASA, which considered that, in the absence of qualification, the term “modern university” was ambiguous. The ASA reminded the advertiser to ensure that in future, claims which may be interpreted in differing ways should be qualified to ensure that the meaning is sufficiently clear. The ASA also found that the advertiser did not have sufficient evidence to substantiate the claim (University of West London, 15 Nov 2017).


For more information see Claims that require qualification.


  • Represent the evidence accurately

Marketers should ensure that the claims they make accurately represent any evidence held.


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.


An ad for the University of Strathclyde included a headline which stated “We’re ranked No.1 in the UK”, with text below this 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.” Whilst the advertiser had evidence that 40% and 56% of their research was rated world class or excellent respectively, the REF 2014 results did not formally rank the universities. 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.  As such, the ASA ruled that the ad was misleading (University of Strathclyde, 15 Nov 2017). See also Falmouth University, 15 Nov 2017.


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


The claim “Our Arts and Humanities research is number 1 in the UK for overall research quality (GPA) in #REF2021” was considered misleading, because the basis of the comparison was not sufficiently clear. The ad did not make clear 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 (University of Leicester, 07 Sept 2022).


  • Make comparative claims verifiable

The Code also states that all comparisons with identifiable competitors must be verifiable. This means that the advertiser should set out the relevant information in the ad, or include a signpost which directs consumers to the information used to make that comparison, so that it can be checked by the audience. See the detailed guidance on this topic – Comparisons: Verifiability – for further information.


Source: CAP


Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the ASA. CAP’s AdviceOnline entries provide guidance on interpreting the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing.


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