The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is casting their vigilant eye over the Higher Education sector, after the watchdog told a handful of UK universities to change their marketing messaging over claims it was misleading.

Over exaggerated advertising copy can portray an institution in a false light, which may have a massive impact on a prospective student's future. The majority of challenges, faced by the ASA, have been on how universities word their positions in rankings, awards and comparison tables - which could be at best, causing confusion. And at worst, misleading.

The University of Reading was told to remove an advertising messaging earlier this year. This came after complaints that their marketing, which stated that the University was in the top 1% worldwide, was inaccurate. With the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) now telling other institutions to follow suit; what does the University of Reading's former Head of Corporate Communications, Charles Heymann, think this means for the Higher Education sector?

Charles Heymann, now a Communication and Reputation Advisor, publicly showed support for the investigation into university marketing in June, when the University of Reading received the complaints about their advertising. We reached out to Charles recently, to find out what he had to say in light of the ASA's further crackdown.

What do the Advertising Standards Authority rulings and guidelines mean for the Higher Education sector?

It's a wake-up call! Universities are no different to any other business. These rulings underline their responsibility for being fair and transparent in their marketing. They should be following the advertising code and complying with consumer protection law. These are positive steps, it feels like the start of a more open relationship between the sector and the advertising watchdog.

The fact, however, is all universities have a joint obligation to protect integrity and trust in higher education marketing. No university should leave itself in a position where it is knowingly breaching the advertising guidelines. That risks tarnishing their own and frankly, all institutions' reputations.

What should the advice be for universities who are planning advertising campaigns?

Check. Double-check. Treble-check. Then check again.

The ASA has been clear in all six rulings this week that universities need to present more robust data to substantiate comparative claims in future and to make the basis of their claims clearer to consumers.

Universities have to be very careful when basing claims on league tables or awards. Too often, these rankings are based on random metrics, randomly weighted and then combined using opaque scoring methodology - all of which exaggerates very marginal differences between universities. It's tempting for marketing teams to push the boundaries as far as they can go, to gut the data and fit into the narrative it wants to tell.

Going forward, what do universities need to consider?

These ASA rulings and new guidance could help shift mindsets - and bolster marketing teams to be more creative, innovative and bold. Institutions talk-the-talk on brand differentiation, then lose their nerve. Too many revert to safe, tried and tested marketing and PR - generic straplines, identikit mission statements and hackneyed 'three and a tree' visuals.

Our universities are competing with new private providers; the expansion of skills training; aggressive marketing from international institutions; and new degree products like two-year courses, degree apprenticeships and 'blended' and distance learning.

Going forward, teams need deeper insight of the entire organisation - its research, its teaching, its commercial operation, its services. They need to identify the values which tie prospects, students, academics, alumni, professional staff and external partners together.

Where would you recommend pointing fellow education marketers to find out more?

The sector is going to be scrutinised increasingly closely from now on. Trust your instincts, challenge each other and test it out with your core audience. The ASA's specific rulings are pretty clear, so use the Committee for Advertising Practice's guidance and the ASA Code.

Work closely with your data analysts; don't think about what you can get away, think about what meets the ASA requirements. Then work with your creative agencies, who are experienced in working with regulators to get advertising through. You can also check out the ASA's guidance to this on their website.

If your institution has any concerns or questions around the ASAs investigation, or to hear more about our services, then please get in touch.

Article by


Matt Payne

Senior Marketing Executive