04817-19 Wilson v Sunday Times

Decision: Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

Decision of the Complaints Committee 04817-19 Wilson v Sunday Times

Summary of Complaint

1. David Wilson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday Times had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Britons lose out to rush of foreign medial students”, published on 10 March 2019.

2. The article reported that Britons wanting to become doctors are being turned away from medical schools as the schools admit growing numbers of overseas students. It reported that "the number of British first-degree students training to be doctors in the UK dropped by more than 500 from 2013-14 to 2017-18, while medical schools increased non-EU student numbers by 12%". The article also reported concerns among applicants that British students risked being priced out of studying medicine, as non-EU students pay significantly higher tuition fees. The article  included a quote from a Professor of Education in which he said that it was "'really unfair' on hard-working teenagers who achieved straight As at A-Level, but could not find a place to study medicine in the UK". The article also included comments from the Chief Executive of the Medical Schools Council, who said: “Each school is permitted to recruit 7.5% of its permitted numbers — but no more — from overseas. If a school is allowed to recruit 200 students no more than 15 must be domiciled outside the EU.” She also commented that, in addition to academic excellence, medical schools also looked for, “resilience, empathy and the ability to cope with uncertainty”.

3. The article also appeared in similar terms online under the same headline. The online article was originally published with a graph entitled: “Home and international students at medical schools”. The graph's key said that it showed the number of "UK students" and "non-UK students" at medical schools and the graph indicated that 81% of students at Cardiff Medical School were “non-UK” students.

4. The complainant, a professor at Cardiff Medical School, said that the graph published in the online article was inaccurate and had misleadingly reported that international students made up 81% of all medical students at the school. The complainant said that this was impossible as international students, defined by the university as Non-EU students, were only permitted to make up a maximum of 7.5% of the total cohort of medical students, as was the case at all other public universities. He said that the graph's title and key were misleading as the title said it depicted "Home" and "international" students, whereas the key said it depicted "UK" and "non-UK" students. He said that at Cardiff Medical School, "home" students are defined as UK and EU students combined and it was not possible to separate the EU students from the "home" group; to refer to UK and non-UK students was misleading, not least in the wider context of the article where the terms "foreign", "non EU", "International" and "overseas" were used without any indication as to how these groups were defined. He also suggested that the figures the publication were relying on were distorted by virtue of including the numbers for students studying dentistry. The complainant could not provide figures of exactly what percentage of students at Cardiff Medical School paid international fees, beyond that it was under 7.5%.

5. The complainant also said that the article's use of the term "rush" was misleading as a 12% rise in non-EU medical students did not constitute a “rush”. He also said that the article misleadingly implied that applicants were assessed on academic ability alone; and that it failed to mention the positive widening access activities that medical schools were undertaking. The complainant said that the quote from the Professor of Education was inaccurate and inappropriate given that he taught at a university where all students were charged international fees, which amounted to £37,000 per year.

6. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 12 (Discrimination) as it discriminated against foreign students.

7. The publication accepted that the graph in the online article was inaccurate as higher education statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) had been misinterpreted and miscalculated. It said that it was uploaded mistakenly as a result of human error. The graph was removed 3 days after publication and the following statement was published on the online corrections page 5 days after that:

Due to a production error, the online edition of our story “Britons lose out to rush of foreign medical students” (March 10) originally included a graph including incorrect information on the number of international students at British medical schools. The graph has been removed. We apologise for the error.

8. The publication provided data from the HESA which demonstrated that medical schools increased non-EU student numbers by 11.6% over the period reported in the article. It said that the word “rush” was subjective and that, in any event, it was entitled to characterise a 12% rise in international (non-EU) fee-paying students over 4 years as a “rush”; it was entitled to rely on data provided by the HESA which it had reported accurately. The publication said that it was possible to distinguish between UK, EU and other international students as the data of the HESA was categorised in this way. Further, the figures relied upon in the article were for (A1) pre-clinical medicine and (A3) clinical medicine, and did not incorporate dentistry as alleged by the complainant.

9. The publication also published a letter to the editor written by the Medical Schools Council on 17 March 2019. The letter alleged that the article under complaint was inaccurate and stated that "Medical intakes to all home programmes are government controlled and do not permit universities to admit more than 7.5% of their intake from international sources". The publication also said that its digital staff had been given instructions to ensure that graphics are not uploaded to the publication's publishing system without them first being signed off by the relevant journalists, so as to avoid further erroneous publication of graphics.

10. The publication considered that it had complied with Clause 1(ii) by taking prompt steps to correct and apologise for the erroneous graph. The publication also offered to include the correct number of international students at Cardiff Medical School in the wording which it had proposed, if the complainant could provide the figure.  The publication offered the following wording to be published in the online corrections and clarifications column, with a link to the correction as a footnote to the article:

"On March 10, our online edition published a graph indicating that 81% of students at Cardiff University School of Medicine were not from the UK. The graph was incorrect and should not have been published: the true figure for non-UK students is XX%. We apologise for the error, which was due to a mistake in the production process."

Relevant Code Provisions

11. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Findings of the Committee

12. The publication had conceded that its checking procedures had not worked with respect to the graph published with the online article and, as a result, the errors in the graph had not been identified prior to publication. This represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate and misleading information in breach of Clause 1(i).

13. The online article reported the concern that UK students were being priced out by international fee-paying students and the graph was presented as providing figures for “home and international medical students at medical schools". Readers would, therefore, have understood that 81% of medical students at Cardiff Medical School were international students (that is, not from the UK) where this is not the case. This was significantly inaccurate where it was accepted that the number of non-EU students was capped at 7.5%. A correction was required under Clause 1(ii).

14. The publication had removed the graph from the online article and had promptly published a correction and an apology in its online corrections and clarifications column eight days after the article had been published. During IPSO's investigation, it had also offered to provide a link to the correction as a footnote to the online article and to revise the wording to refer specifically to Cardiff Medical School and the inaccuracy which had appeared in the graph. The Committee considered that the column was a suitably prominent position in which to correct the inaccuracy. Acknowledging that the publication had offered to include the correct figure in the correction, but where the exact number of international students studying at Cardiff Medical School was in dispute and had not been provided by the complainant, the Committee considered that the correction should make clear that the number of Non-EU students were capped at 7.5%. Subject to this addition, the correction offered was sufficient to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).

15. With regard to the article's use of the word “rush”, the publication had demonstrated there had been an increase in non-EU students of 12% over five years and this had been reported in the article. The publication was entitled to describe this increase as a “rush” and, where the basis for the characterisation was also included in the article, the use of the term fell within the boundaries of editorial discretion. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

16. The publication had demonstrated that the figures provided by the HESA did not include those individuals studying dentistry as alleged by the complainant. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

17. Newspapers have editorial discretion in relation to the information they choose to publish, provided that the publication does not breach the Code. In this case, there was no obligation to report on Cardiff’s outreach activities; to explain the Professor of Education’s research background; or to mention the range of factors used to assess medical school applicants. In any event, the article did not claim that ability to pay and academic merit were the only ways by which applicants are assessed, only that they were two significant factors, and the quote from Chief Executive of the Medical Schools Council referenced other attributes which are looked for in successful applicants. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

18. The aim of Clause 12 of the Code is to protect individuals from discriminatory coverage. The article had not named or identified any international students who are studying at a UK medical school and the complainant's concern that the article had discriminated against international students, in general, did not engage the terms of Clause 12.


19. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i).

Remedial Action Required

20. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

21. The publication had offered to publish a correction suitably promptly and with due prominence to satisfy the requirements of Clause 1(ii), provided it added that the percentage of Non-EU medical students at UK medical schools was capped at 7.5%. This correction should now be published.


Date complaint received: 18/06/2019

Date complaint concluded: 18/02/2020

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