The perils of using vague statistics and generalised claims to promote universities have been exposed by the ASA, the UK’s advertising watchdog, which has censured six institutions for claims such as ‘top 1% in the world’ and “top 5 in the UK for student satisfaction’.

The UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld complaints against the Universities of Leicester, East Anglia, Falmouth, Teeside, Strathclyde and West London for statements made on websites and Facebook advertising.

The ASA warned universities to “make sure you practice what you teach: play by the advertising rules, in particular by backing up your claims with good evidence.” It has also published new guidance for universities.

League tables, at both global and national levels, have become a prominent part of the marketing mix for many universities, despite concerns about methodologies. Recent World 100 research with global universities showed that 65% of institutions are actively promoting rankings in their communications.

And our most recent research with academics shows that they recognise how important rankings have become for key audiences, particularly international students, but also as a way that other academics and universities consider which institutions to collaborate with globally.

The key immediate lesson from the ASA action is that universities need to be very precise when making reputational claims, properly reflecting the data source and avoiding generalisations.  It is reasonable to claim that a university is ‘ranked amongst the top 200 universities according to the xx World University Rankings’ rather than simply saying ‘a top 200 world university’. The ASA guidelines may be helpful for universities worldwide as well as in the UK.

A broader issue relates to the more competitive environment that universities in many parts of the world are now operating in, and the pressures to develop differentiated messages. A prominent UK commentator has described the environment as ‘having a touch of the Wild West about it.’

Global universities with excellent reputations – our Members – need to ensure that they don’t get sucked into ‘Battles of the OK (or QS?) Corral’, firing off tangential claims that can be challenged. Rankings can of course be useful to establish a relative position, but strategic communications delivering excellent engagement with stakeholders based around a strong articulation of the real strengths of an institution will always carry more weight.