​​​​​Inadvertentdanger

When, in 2011, the UK government announced plans for the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), its commitment to consumer protection for students and the potential crackdown on 'mis-selling' sent panic throughout HE. Concerns from the then chief executive of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator remain as valid now as they were six years ago. "Universities need to be extremely careful that…they describe the reality of what's going to happen to students. Because competition is going to get greater for attracting students, there is a danger that universities will go the extra mile."


​Ever since CMA published its 2015 advice, there has been unease about the impact and consequences, particularly the way in which institutions are marketed. This increased when the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recently upheld complaints against six universities and warned others of making exaggerated claims.​ To date, CMA HE cases have focused on implications of mergers and student T&Cs (progression and debt). None of its cases on 'misleading descriptions and practices' came from HE, but it has forced commercial companies to take action for practices which could occur. Airbnb changed its online reviews system so guests who choose not to stay where booked can review more easily (comments by rejections, decliners, transfers, dropouts); Asda ensures promotional pricing is fair and clear(hidden costs, payment plans, bursary criteria); Social Chain clearly labels/differentiates paid-for advertising from other social media content (comments from paid student bloggers, graduate speakers, ambassadors); and Weatherseal addressed concerns over self-employed sales agents' conduct (recruitment/outreach staff, student ambassadors, call handlers & agents).


Up next, Kathryn's advice on marketing content & messaging

​​​​​​​ASA's top tips

More than one university now requires its Legal Department to check content. A safe option, this can cause delays and lead to an over cautious approach weakening messaging and competitive positioning.


ASA offers the following top tips​​ to adhere to the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) guidelines:

  • ​Consider the comparative claim you wish to make (1st, best, top 5, leading)
  • Attribute & hold evidence to substantiate claims (league tables, research, awards)
  • Don’t misrepresent evidence (reference the source, version/year of publication & be careful of 'clever' data manipulation)
  • ​Make the basis of your claim clear & ensure it can be easily understood (any data manipulation or interpretation should be transparent & clear, explain jargon eg. 'modern university')