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Update: universities must be compliant with consumer law

A student reading in a library

Last month Which? raised concerns that universities grant themselves wide discretion to make course changes. Here’s the CMA on why they have issued advice to help universities comply with consumer law.

For the majority of students, higher education is an enriching, positive chapter in their lives, paving the way for future career opportunities and personal development. It usually involves a critical one-off decision about which course and university to choose, followed by a significant commitment of time and money over a number of years.

So it’s crucial that students know exactly what they’re signing up for, and have all the information they need to help them make an informed choice about which course and institution to apply to and study at.

And when they get to university, they should be treated fairly. The university’s terms and conditions (which includes the rules and regulations and other policies for students) should be fair to ensure they cannot make unexpected changes to the course, for example to its content or structure, or to costs. Where problems arise the university should ensure its complaint handling processes are accessible, clear and fair to students.

The CMA’s advice to universities and students

With higher education playing a key role in the economy, compliance with consumer protection law is not only important in giving students the protection required by the law, but it also helps to maintain student confidence and the standards and reputation of the UK higher education sector.

It was a recommendation by the Office of Fair Trading’s Call for Information on the higher education undergraduate sector in England, published in 2014, that the CMA clarify the responsibilities of universities under consumer protection law.

We are therefore issuing advice to universities and other institutions that provide higher education courses to help them understand and comply with consumer law. We are writing to higher education providers asking them to review and, if necessary, amend their practices in line with our advice that they should:

  • Give students the clear, accurate and timely information they need so they can make an informed decision about what and where to study.
  • Ensure that their terms and conditions are fair.
  • Ensure that their complaint handling processes are clear, accessible, and fair.

It’s also important that students know their rights, so we have published information on how consumer law applies to them so they can expect and demand fair treatment from universities.

Does your uni comply with consumer law?

We will monitor the sector and in October 2015 we’ll be reviewing the position on compliance with the law – so we would welcome input from students, stakeholders and universities and other providers on their experiences.

If you wish to report a potential breach of consumer law by a higher education provider to the CMA, you can do so here.

We will also work closely with Which? on consumer law compliance to ensure universities and students understand its importance in this sector.

This is a guest post by Nisha Arora, Senior Director in the Competition and Market Authority’s Enforcement Directorate. All opinions are Nisha’s own, not necessarily those of Which?

Update 22 July 2016

The CMA has carried out a review of higher education (HE) providers to ensure all are complying with consumer protection law.

The review found some universities are moving in the right direction, while others are still falling short of the mark.

The CMA has agreed action with some universities following shortfalls found in the review and have written to all university vice chancellors reminding them of their obligations under consumer law.

Choosing a university is a big decision to make and it’s clear that there are still barriers to making an informed decision. We want the government to ensure all universities comply with consumer law and give the proposed new Office for Students the necessary powers to hold universities to account.

Comments
Member

Just a bit of jargon-busting: the CMA is the Competition and Markets Authority.

I think the CMA is to be praised for this action and I hope it keeps an eye on those academic institutions that were caught being a litle bit inconsiderate of students’ positions when altering courses and programmes.

Member

I welcome the involvement of the CMA to improve compliance with consumer law. I believe it would be useful to liaise with existing regulators of higher education provision, both to gain an insight into the problems and solutions for tackling them.

Off topic, but I would not recommend any potential students use Which? University. For example:

Biochemistry or biomedical sciences?
A biochemistry degree (the study of biology at a molecular level) will covers areas including cell biology, genetics and organic chemistry.

You’ll spot very similar areas covered in biomedical sciences, microbiology, physiology, pharmacology and neuroscience courses, too.

Compared with the usual standard of material published by Which? this is not very helpful and it has not been proof read. Biomedical science is not explained and the writer would benefit from looking up biochemistry on Wikipedia.

Member

Hi Wavechange – thanks for having a look on Which? University and for flagging your concerns.

We’ve updated the typo you spotted and have also asked the writer to review this paragraph (as it’s a reference within a broader article topic we’re limited on how much detail we can go into here, but we can certainly look to tighten up the definitions and offer some additional links to more information, etc.).

Thanks again.

Member

Thanks Becky. I appreciate that there is a limit to the amount of detail that can be given, but in the example I have quoted, it’s not just a case of differentiating between biochemistry and biomedical science degrees, but whether or not the latter are accredited. An accredited BMedSci degree offers much greater employment opportunities. The issue came up in the previous Conversation – see this post by John: https://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/universities-uni-students-unfair-course-degree-changes-law/comment-page-1/#comment-1402525

I certainly would not expect Which? to provide all the information needed, but by giving links to good quality information sources and keeping these up to date, Which? could make a useful input and hopefully gain respect from the academic sector.

Member

I am curious whether the move to more rights and responsibilities actually works in respect of students who commit to a three year course and then switch or ditch thereby breaking the economic case for the course to run.

Is there a liability involved – speaking legally of course.

Member

That is an interesting point Diesel. Nowadays, students are very much buying their higher education rather than having it given to them under the old grant regime. Universities obviously need to factor in a drop-out rate for all courses but I expect more students are reviewing their options more critically in the light of their own perceived academic progress and the vagaries of the external job market. I should think dealing with the consequences of this tendency takes up a lot of the tutors’ time. It is probably true that a number of institutions are offering courses that are not robustly viable and might, as a result, become academically light-weight. Aside from benchmarking and regulation, I don’t know how much coordination of course provision there is nowadays; I am sure the funding councils seek to optimise course provision and check that the universities can honour their commitments but, as Diesel says, the students’ own decisions can upset the best-laid plans. The proliferation of advertisements for university courses each summer shows how competitive the sector has become and students certainly have a wide choice of programmes these days; indeed, the range of permutations of courses within degree programmes might add to the complexity of dealing with a fall-off in numbers in the later stages. It is probably the case that the financial environment in which most universities operate compels them to look very critically at their ability to sustain courses beyond a higher threshold than used to be the case. As Wavechange has said, the CMA needs to understand the full ramifications of what it has engaged on to ensure that universities are not driven into defensive positions that would ultimately be detrimental to the scope and depth of higher education.