Graduate Fog has launched an official challenge over Prospects’ right to use its prestigious ac.uk web address, calling upon the academic domain name gurus JANET to investigate – and consider stripping the website of its domain name if it is no longer eligible to use it.

Why did I take such drastic action?

Because I think it’s really, really important to get to the bottom of this. I do not see how we can improve student and graduate career advice on a national scale without first understanding what’s going wrong with the current system — which I believe is rotten to the core and failing to help the hundreds of thousands of young people who need it the most.

And — thanks to you, Graduate Fog’s users — I now know I’m not alone.

The massive response to my recent blog post Prospects scolds Graduate Fog – for helping a student! proved that large numbers of the careers community are concerned and puzzled by Prospects’ unchallenged dominance over the UK’s university careers advice when — you feel — many better providers exist.

Even more importantly, students and graduates have told Graduate Fog they were shocked to learn they were mistaken in assuming (from Prospects’ slogan, domain name and the fact that it is so widely recommended by university careers advisers) that the website was either university-funded, government-funded or charitable — when in fact it is none of these. Rapidly losing confidence in “the UK’s official graduate careers website,” you want to know: ‘What is Prospects? And is it working in our best interests – or its own?’

Prospects’ business model – and reach – is a complex business, so I’ve decided examine this puzzle piece by piece.

My first question was:

Why should Prospects be eligible to use the prestigious ac.uk domain name, when this is usually reserved for UK academic institutions only?

And the answer?

It isn’t eligible.

At least, not under the current guidelines.

It’s like this. The people who decide who gets (and doesn’t get) an ac.uk domain name are an organisation called JANET, ‘The UK’s education and research network’.

In the ‘Eligibility’ section of their website, they state that organisations applying for an ac.uk domain name must fit both these mandatory requirements:

1)      JANET must be sure that the organisation has ‘a permanent physical presence in the UK’,


2)     JANET must be sure that ‘the majority of its activities are publicly funded by UK government funding bodies OR it is a Learned Society.’

Now, unless I’ve missed something, we have a problem here. Prospects fits the first requirement fine (the company is based in Manchester) — but it does NOT fit the second requirement. The majority of Prospects’ activities are NOT government funded and it is NOT a Learned Society.

Which means that if Prospects applied today for an ac.uk domain name, it would not be  eligible.

In fact, Prospects is no more eligible for an ac.uk domain name than any other careers website — including Graduate Fog!

I read on — and discovered that JANET has the right to remove an ac.uk domain name from anybody caught using theirs improperly:

If a name is allocated as a result of misrepresentation on the part of the requester or its principal, JANET(UK) reserves the right to withdraw the allocated name. In such a circumstance the domain name owners will be contacted and given 2 weeks’ notice in order to appeal against the decision. There will be no compensation for costs (direct or indirect) incurred by the organisation as a result of the need to rename.

So if JANET wishes, it could (in theory) strip Prospects of its domain name within two weeks – with no financial compensation.

Confident I had a good case, I emailed JANET to request an investigation, including a link to our discussions on Graduate Fog.

A day later, this response arrived from the ‘Domain Administrator / JTAG manager’ (Just skip the boring bits if you’re not a details person!):

While I sympathise with your issue I don’t feel that there is a case for the domain name Prospects.ac.uk to be removed from the dns. The domain name was registered prior to 2000 and would have been subject to the eligibility rules at that time.  We do state on our own web pages that –

‘The acceptance of a name is conditional on that name being used specifically and exclusively for the organisation on whose behalf it is registered. The Committee expect that the use of an approved name will lead directly to the homepage (or “under construction” trailer) for that organisation and not to that of its ISP or any other organisation. Abuse of this principle will result in the name being withdrawn.’

Prospects.ac.uk does meet this criteria. Also, we advise that:

‘Should these rules be revised at a later date, existing registrations will remain valid even if they would otherwise fall outside the revised rules. These names are regarded as exceptional, and should not be regarded as setting a precedent.’

Finally, they clearly do still meet one of the current rules for eligibility criteria [THIS REFERS TO A SECOND SET OF CRITERIA, ONCE THE MANDATORY CRITERIA HAVE BEEN FULFILLED — GF] in that their ‘primary purpose is to provide support for organizations that work with, and provide other services to, tertiary level educational establishments or the associated research community’, although I do understand that you find this questionable as a result of your own individual dealings with them.

Should further evidence come to light which puts the above criteria into question then we would be happy to review the situation.


Now, this sounded like a No to me, but I wasn’t quite clear why. (Maybe you’re good with this kind of small-print language? But I’m more of a ‘just-speak-English-please’ kind of girl.)

So I replied:

Thanks for this response. However, I’m afraid I am still unclear as to why JANET will not be investigating this matter further. Can you explain it in layman’s terms?

To me it seems that there is a clear possibility that Prospects have changed their business model since acquiring their ac.uk domain name, and that it may no longer appropriate for them to trade using it. If this continues, hundreds of thousands of students and graduates will continue to be mislead, thinking this website is in some way official or university-accredited, when it is in fact a commercial site.

Does JANET not agree that this is at least worth investigating?Otherwise, surely this sets a dangerous precedent that anybody can start using their .ac.uk domain name for profit-making activities, without any threat of removal?

I will be blogging about this matter later, so would appreciate it if JANET could make a short statement explaining why you will not be taking this further. As you saw from my blog post, this matter has ignited a huge debate within the careers community! So I would like to be absolutely clear on the reasons behind your decision before I announce it to my users.

JANET’s response shocked me:

I thought that my previous response was clear but I have since made some further checks and contacted Prospects myself for clarification on how they fit the current eligibility guidelines for ac.uk. Mike Hill, CEO for Prospects, has provided me with the following statement:

“The Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU) is an agency of UUK and GuildHE, and is a charity. The chairman is Professor Keith Burnett, VC, Sheffield. Every year, it spends between £750k and £1m supporting the work of HE careers advisory services, funding research and supporting students and graduates. It also funds the National Council for Work Experience.

It has a commercial subsidiary, Graduate Prospects Ltd. It gift aids its profits to HECSU. The chair of its board is again Professor Keith Burnett, and he is one of five non-executive directors, all of whom are VCs and Registrars.

We have had an ac.uk domain since the start of the internet age (1995 I think), because we are an integral part of HE, wholly owned by HE. We have no shareholders, just trustees. We are official, in that we are charged by UUK and GuildHE to, inter alia, maintain the official database of PG courses, to maintain a database of all graduate careers options, and we work with AGCAS, fellow UUK agencies UCAS, HEFCE, HESA and so on.

If you need any further information, please feel free to ring me on my direct line.

All the best
Mike Hill
Chief Executive
Graduate Prospects & HECSU

If you wish to take the matter further then I would suggest that you take up Mike’s offer to talk this through with you, to explain in greater detail what they do and to clarify how and why they fit into the HE sector. Regards.

Er, what??

First, Mike Hill’s statement doesn’t answer any of the questions any better than JANET’s original email does, and –

Second, are JANET – the people who make decisions about the ac.uk domain name – seriously suggesting I get in touch with Prospects directly? How awkward would that conversation be – and what could I hope to achieve from it? JANET makes the decision on this stuff, so what’s the point of me having a chat with Mike about it?

Still baffled, I replied:

Thanks for this reply and for your further research. However, despite the statement from Mike Hill, I’m afraid I’m still puzzled by JANET’s decision not to take this further.

Your website states:An organisation may register one or more names in the ac.uk domain provided that it meets the initial requirement of a permanent physical presence in the UK and that the majority of its activities are publicly funded by UK government funding bodies, OR it is a Learned Society.’

It seems clear to me that Prospects is neither government funded, nor a learned society. Or am I missing something?!

Mike Hill’s statement didn’t help clarify this for me, I’m afraid. I don’t see how HECSU’s status as a charity is relevant to Prospects’ claim to an ac.uk domain name. As he says himself, Prospects is the commercial subsidiary of HECSU, it is not HECSU. Similarly, a list of the bodies and agencies that Prospects works with does not change its status either.

I have no wish to discuss this matter directly with Prospects and hope I am right in assuming that Mike is unaware that it was me who has requested this enquiry? Since clearly the decision about this matter is JANET’s alone, I can’t see that there is anything to be gained from me speaking to Mike directly.

PS. Perhaps you would kindly put together a short press statement clarifying JANET’s decision for Graduate Fog’s users, who also share my concerns? That would be greatly appreciated.

Her response? ONE LINE:

It is not appropriate for me to comment further on behalf of JANET(UK) on a dispute that is essentially between yourself and Prospects. Regards,

No word of a lie, that’s what she wrote, word for word.

My jaw hit the floor – for several reasons:

1) JANET has still not, in my opinion, answered the main question about why Prospects should be eligible for an ac.uk domain name, when they do not meet that second mandatory requirement of being EITHER majority government-funded OR a learned institution.

2) Prospects has still not addressed this question either.

3) In ignoring my direct question about the mandatory requirements, JANET has implied that my reasons for getting in touch are not legitimate — when they are. They have also implied that I am alone in my concerns about Prospects’ use of the ac.uk domain name — despite my link to the many comments from Graduate Fog’s users. JANET has also ignored my question about whether Mike Hill at Prospects is aware that it was me who made the request for Prospects to be investigated.

4) JANET has refused to supply a statement clarifying their decision so that I can explain their position clearly to you, Graduate Fog’s users (Which I just find really arrogant!).

It seems to me that the best justification that JANET can offer for not even considering the case for removing Prospects’ domain name is that this would be unfair to Prospects as they were awarded it so long ago and now have a lot to lose.

JANET seem to be saying that because the eligibility rules have changed since Prospects was granted the ac.uk domain name so many years ago (when, by the way, it was registered by the University of Manchester, who I understand originally set up Prospects), it would be really very mean to take it away from Prospects now, even if it is no longer appropriate for their business to continue to use it and doing so is misleading to hundreds of thousands of students and graduates.

But the fact remains that Prospects is continuing to use a domain name widely considered to be a ‘badge of trust’ when, strictly speaking, it no longer meets the requirements.

Doesn’t anybody — at JANET or Prospects — feel even slightly uncomfortable about this?

Later, I found another paragraph on JANET’s website that I’m surprised they didn’t refer me to, which gives them even more ‘wriggle room’:

Note: The approval system in place prior to 1 August 1996 gave rise to a number of anomalies whereby names were accepted which do not conform to current rules as to eligibility and format. These anomalies could not be rectified retrospectively by JANET(UK) and the names registered remain in use. The existence of these names does not set any precedent governing the consideration of new applications.

This, I suspect, is the technicality which will allow JANET to claim there is nothing they can do about this situation – and will allow Prospects to continue to use its ac.uk domain name despite the fact that if they applied for it now they would not be eligible.

JANET can, I assume, do whatever they like – and it sounds to me like they’re backing Prospects because a few lines in their small print allow them to use their judgement when reviewing ancient cases where domain names were granted before 1995 (when most of the students and graduates now using their website were just 6 years old).

But does that make JANET’s decision the RIGHT one?

Taken with Prospects’ slogan ‘The UK’s official graduate careers website’ and its long-standing relationship with the universities’ careers advisers, it is my personal opinion that Prospects’ continued use of this domain name is seriously misleading for our nation’s young people – at a time when they desperately need clarity and quality of information and advice.

Will Prospects admit that their continued use of this domain name is misleading to the UK’s students and graduates?

Does JANET not feel any responsibility for allowing this situation to continue?

And what do YOU think should happen now? Should we drop it – or push for JANET to reconsider their decision?

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