It has been reported that Newcastle University, among others across the UK, has made misleading claims to students about their position in the global rankings of higher education.
The Independent has reported on an investigation which uncovered that Newcastle University has reported unverifiable information about its position in the top universities in the world. Newcastle University advertised that it was in the top 1% of the QS World University Rankings. But it came 141st in the current table making it in the top 15 per cent of ranked institutions. The university has removed the original claim where they used figures from 2015 rankings. However, the 2018 prospectus shows the University was still claiming it was a top 1 per cent ranked university at the time but was only 161st, using figures from 2016. This claim in both the Newcastle University and Newcastle University London 2018 prospectus’ remains on their website.
Charles Heymann, a higher education communications adviser said last year that, many universities are able to state that ‘they are in the top 10 for something’. This does not mean however, that the university is an all-round world leading institution.
Newcastle University was not alone in making inflated claims as Aston University, the University of Aberdeen, Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, the University of the West of Scotland and Ulster University all suggested that they were world leading universities. This investigation came only 10 months after the Advertising Standards Authority told six other universities (Newcastle not included) to remove misleading marketing claims that were not supported by ‘good evidence’.
The Guardian reported on a decrease in school leavers applying to higher education. Last year, it was estimated that between 2015 and 2020 the number of 18 year olds applying to university would drop by 75,000. This may have been a factor in some universities publishing misleading information with the intention of attracting more students, although a relationship between a drop in applicants and the publication of misleading data has not been proven. With application rates continuing to fall, unless kept in check by the advertising watchdog, erroneous statistics could continue to be seen on university websites across the country.
The Courier contacted the University Press Office for a Response. A Newcastle University spokesperson said that: ‘Following the ASA ruling last year, we reviewed all use of comparative claims and enforced our internal approach to the use of rankings and accolades. Regrettably, the statement in question relates to one pdf from 2015 which was left on our website in error during an ongoing revamp. We do not use this claim any longer.’ The University has stated that the information should have been removed following the ASA crackdown on misleading claims in November 2017. Rather than suggesting that Newcastle University is a top 1% University, it is now content to safely claim, ‘we are in the top 150 universities worldwide according to the latest QS World University Rankings 2019’. An increased use of nuance by places of higher education would hopefully give future students a clearer picture of each institutions level of global excellence.