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Universities need a lecture on consumer law

Our latest research finds universities using terms we consider to be breaching consumer law, leaving students open to unfair course changes after they’ve signed up. Did your uni ever make changes to your course?

Whether it’s the cost of tuition or living expenses, going to university is an expensive choice in life. But are today’s students really getting what they pay for?

When students are gearing up to go to university, they’re busy thinking about moving home, their modules, social life, and the all around excitement that comes with it. However, the decision of choosing a university is likely one of the most significant in a student’s life to date, and has huge implications on their future. They should be able to easily access and understand the terms and conditions of the university they’re considering.

Investigating university T&Cs

We wanted to see just how fair those T&Cs are, and what rules universities set for when they want to make changes to courses. To do this, we sent requests under the Freedom of Information Act to 142 universities in the UK.

Of these, 131 universities wrote back with terms and policies for us to investigate. The difficulty of this task lay in the fact that no two universities were alike. Some sent perfectly neat tables answering each of our questions, while others simply sent a link to their website for us to navigate the vast array of documents within.

We methodically went through all of these websites, terms and policies, scanning for language that set out the university’s position on making changes to courses, all the while thinking of the students who surely would never have gotten this far.

Unfair university terms

Armed with this research, we found half of the universities use terms that give them freedom to change courses even when these changes could have been prevented. Of these, one in five use terms that we consider to be unlawful and in breach of the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations. Only one of the 131 unis who responded had terms we considered to be best practice.

In our view, changes to courses should only be allowed where this is beneficial to students, or necessary in response to an event outside the university’s control. If this does happen, we think that a remedy (such as compensation or support moving to an alternative course) should be available to students.

Given the amount of time it took us to review the information for each university, it’s obvious that many universities’ terms aren’t easily accessible for students. With students paying up to £9,000 to go to uni these days, we think they deserve fair and clear terms so they can be confident they’ll get what they pay for.

We think students could benefit if the higher education sector worked together to produce a standard, user-friendly format for student contracts. But we also want universities to take immediate action to give students the protection they’re entitled to. We’ll be submitting our findings to the Competition and Markets Authority and we’re calling for the regulator to check if universities are complying with its guidance.

Do you think students deserve clear terms on course changes before they sign up to a university? Was your course ever changed during your degree?


Is it possible for you to publish the names of those universities who responded and detail those who you considered to be using unlawful terms please?

John says:
5 February 2015

Nearly 20 years ago now I began a degree doing Biomedical Science, a BMedSci course. Towards the end of the degree we were told that we’d be graduating as BSc in Biomedical Science. As far as I know it was never officially explained why this had happened or what if any the ramifications of this were. Many I’m sure simply saw it as a change of title and didn’t consider it meant anything else.

About halfway through our course (before the classification change was announced) one of our lecturers was chatting to some of us during a practical lesson. He mentioned that our degree was unaccredited and if we wanted to go further down this professional path we would have to do a masters degree or something related, such as nursing. He also mentioned that another university, who had a campus less than 10 miles away had a similar course to ours but it was internationally renowned at the time. Many of the students standing there that day would have most likely have rejected an offer from the other Uni when choosing where to study due to it being seen as an ‘inferior’ university (many students at the time tended to apply to both).

It was only now all these years later after reading your piece that I’ve considered that the two events were related as closely as they obviously are. I didn’t end up using my degree directly anyway, I became self employed, though that was partly due to not wanting to spend any more time in education to take my degree further as my lecturer suggested.

I’m sorry to hear your tale, John. I presume you are referring to accreditation by the Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS).

Employment of graduates from universities is monitored as a measure of the success or otherwise of degree courses. If students are given poor advice, this would undoubtedly be reflected in the feedback in the National Students Survey that most use to provide feedback towards the end of their course. I hope that we have moved on a lot in the past 20 years. The BMedSci students I have known understood the relevance of accreditation from their first year.

I used to chat with students at the end of practical classes too, while waiting for the slow or conscientious ones to finish their work. I’m not sure if I ever said anything that would have caused a student to change their career plans but it was a good opportunity to get to know the students better and uncover any problems they were having.

Congratulations on a thorough job and it is interesting to see what a mess exists. It seems a shame that the NUS which has been in existence for so long does not address these matters.

The growth of the university system where they compete for consumers and then try to balance budgets has obviously created serious problems. i do not think that applying the CMA to this mess is actually going to help very much as no doubt there will be a great deal of legal activity which will involve time and costs that will just aggravate costs.

I have a deal of sympathy for the Universities where they are subject to the whims of students who may simply quit at anytime leaving a module totally uneconomic to run.

Of course I would not be surprised to find that academia is ramshackle as there many scandals over the last few years of errant COO’s.

*** Good to see the link to the 15 page pdf. included in Useful Links but please can it be a matter of policy to include it in the body of the article rather than just the links to two Which? consumer pages.

Hi Diesel, the reason we don’t link to PDF’s in the body copy is that they can be quite big files that need to be downloaded. This is something we want to warn readers of in case it would use up data on their contract, so we prefer not to hyperlink them in body copy. Hope that makes sense.

Dieseltaylor – From my experience the NUS does make a great deal of input into quality control in our universities. The university unions are involved in much more than conspicuous activities such as events, freshers’ week and union bars. They provide many forms of student support. One of these ways is to recruit course reps (I have mentioned them in a post below) to act as liaison with teaching staff in each department. I coordinated this action for several years in a large department and when a course rep raised a problem relating to course changes it was taken seriously. I encouraged our course reps to let us know in advance about urgent problems to ensure that appropriate members of staff attended the meetings with course reps. Many problems were resolved promptly. The problems remained on the agenda at the next meeting, but a satisfactory solution could be reported and perhaps a lesson learned for the future.

Sometimes there is distrust between students and academics or some aspect of how the university is run (fees is an obvious issue), and that is when the independence of the NUS/union is important and campaigns start.

Keep students well informed, treat them as adults and involve them in proposed course changes and they are often very supportive.

Good point Patrick.

However perhaps there can be a compromise that the at the end of the article a direct reference is made to the .pdf and pages and Mb.

Currently you do actually provide Useful Links that do not give any warning to the size of the file – which is logically subject to the same argument as not using a hyperlink in the body.

This one happens to be light on the data (250kb). The report link wasn’t included when Paul originally asked – so it was a nice reminder form him. I’ll make sure our team remembers to link to the full reports in the future – if not, you know who to nudge! 🙂

Never having been a receptacle nor a dispenser of higher education I hesitate to wade into this debate. But I am concerned about the performance of the university sector because it costs us all a lot of money and the country’s future depends on it to an increasing extent. Moreover, young people entering higher education need protection from bureaucratic incompetence and reassurance that what they set their hearts on and work hard for will be delivered properly; failure to secure that is so wasteful intellectually notwithstanding any financial implications.

It seems crazy to me, but typical of the higher education sector I suppose, that there are no standardised terms and conditions for what is basically a public education service that should be more or less consistent across the UK. How much is this inconsistency costing to administer with each institution creating their own peculiar contract and probably getting into legalistic wrangles over its interpretation? I expect all the problem cases will defend themselves, of course, and carry on regardless. Why can’t they all adopt the York model and live with it? And on top of the direct [and unnecessary] administrative cost to the public purse of the inconsistency there is the disruption of learning which has serious implications. I regard the annual parade of university places and the posturing to prospective students as a most unseemly and fairly inefficient process where the outcomes are too much exposed to luck and circumstance rather than merit [on both sides].

Personally I feel that the CMA is probably not the right body to dig into this – it would take too long, it would get weighed down with pompous representations from a thousand deans and faculties [who should all have something better to do right now], and it would distract the CMA from much more complex and demanding issues in the commercial sector. It doesn’t help that each academic institution is a self-governing corporation but since they all feed off the public money supply somebody in government should be able to tell them to toe the line or face losing their intake.

Pamela Abbott says:
5 February 2015

Students need to get a good education and to be treated fairly. However, HE is not a commodity like cloths etc. and should not be treated as such. This report is not about the quality of HE but the ways in which courses can be changed once a student has begun their programme. Any investigation (and regulation) should be overseen by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education not an organisation that has no understanding of the sector.

That is a good point. Presumably the QAA for HE is already onto this and has a solution.

Good points.

Education is [should not be] a true commercial entity. I was unaware of the existence of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education and certainly the Which? article does not shed any light on to this or other regulators.

A report chosen not entirely randomly

Steve Jackson says:
5 February 2015

I completed my degree some twenty years ago as a mature student having previously spent 25 years working in the building trade. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at university, felt privileged to be there, and have no major complaints about either the university, or the department. However, I did not have to pay tuition fees, had they asked me for £9000 a year I would have fallen over laughing! Do these people believe that sitting in a lecture theatre with 100 others, waiting weeks to get your assessed work back, not being able to get hold of your tutor and travelling 20 miles to find lectures cancelled, is worth this kind of money. Were I there now, I think that I would be battering down the Chancellors door demanding refunds every time the University did not live up to it’s promises!
The government consistently try to ‘sell’ HE on the enhanced earning potential of graduates, this is a myth, except perhaps for graduates in specific areas, who are fortunate enough to land the right jobs! there is not ‘room’ for everybody and I know many graduates who are doing none graduate jobs. For myself I have been teaching for 20 years and have still not earned the yearly equivalent (adjusted for inflation) of what I earned in 1988, my last full year as a builder!
Justifying the tuition fees on future earning potential is a ‘red herring’ and they can only be set in terms of value for money on what the universities actually deliver, students should not be expected to subsidise the inflated salaries of University management who have procured for themselves incomes in line with those of CEOs of corporations and are now trying to invent the finance basis to justify this. This trend is now filtering down to FE! Students rebel!

In the university in which I worked until three years ago, the procedure for complaints was clearly set out. Students were advised to speak to their department. This could be to their allocated supervisor, or in the case of personal and confidential issues. If the student was not satisfied they could have their concerns investigated at university level. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) handles complaints from students for all UK universities.

Our universities are obliged to provide ways of ways of making an input to all aspects of their courses and the students’ union has a role in ensuring that this works effectively. In my department, course representatives were elected by fellow students and invited to attend informal meetings a group of staff. Students were invited to chair meetings and take the minutes, though most were not too keen on the latter task. As coordinator of student-staff interaction it worked very well indeed.

Before we all start university bashing, it’s worth having a look at the National Student Survey (NSS), which allows final year students to provide anonymous feedback. The NSS feedback is used by prospective students and good ratings help recruit future students. The departments see detailed comments, which can be really helpful in making future improvements. I will not discuss the roles of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to keep universities on their toes. If you only look at one of these websites, have a look a the NSS one. That feedback comes from students. Most students enjoy their time at university. Yes there are problems but once they are known, there is a great deal that can be done to resolve them.

In my opinion, one of the biggest threats to universities is the desire of some to run them like companies or government departments.

I will be very interested to read about how the Which? study is reported by experts in higher education.

Oops – that should read: ‘….or in the case of personal and confidential issues, to another member of staff who had been trained to deal with these cases in accordance with the regulations.’

In an earlier report I mentioned the National Students Survey (NSS), which is used to collect anonymous information from students in their final year. This provides feedback about courses, facilities and many more things that will be very useful to anyone considering doing a particular course at any university. Here are some useful links.

To find out more about what the NSS does, the site to look at is: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/whatwedo/lt/publicinfo/nss/

There is a link on this page to the Unistats site, where feedback on different courses can be compared: http://unistats.direct.gov.uk

The site that students use to give their feedback is: http://www.thestudentsurvey.com

If you know of any students in their final year, it’s worth suggesting that they provide their feedback via the NSS survey, which is now available for 2015. It will help future students, it will help their department and it will help in various ways to improve standards.

Very useful and thorough wavechange. This thread is vastly improved for the provision of the names of the different bodies.

And a practical example of what can happen in well run departments! : )

I realise that I have defended the HE sector, Dieseltaylor, but my overall assessment is ‘Must try harder’. Academics tend to focus on learning, teaching and assessment. That’s fine for students that are motivated and cope well. They are likely to do well without much support providing that they do not encounter problems.

Universities have opened their doors to so many new challenges in the past two decades. We have overseas students who may struggle despite having the requisite IELTS score, students with disabilities ranging from mild dyslexia to much more challenging conditions that universities are legally required to cater for. The unreasonable requirement made by successive governments has been to cope with students that are not cut out for university or not motivated. They might enjoy their time at university but many should really have gone for an apprenticeship. Many students struggle with debt, which has an impact on their performance. Many are working during the semesters. This can help a great deal with development of interpersonal skills and confidence, but academic performance can suffer. Student support has become vital for those who need it, but with modern large classes, it is difficult to target this support to those who need it. When I was a student, every one of the 30 students in my year graduated. Nowadays the drop out rates can be worryingly high on many degree courses. If I was planning to go to university I would like to see figures for drop out rates and the profile of degrees awarded. The percentage of first class degrees can be an indicator of excellence but equally it can betray grade inflation, in the same way that A-level results seem to improve each year.

Not all is well in the world of higher education, but the existing quality control measures are hugely important in keeping HE on its toes. I would like to see some random inspection because many deficiencies can be dealt with in time for a visit of the QAA team. An analogy would be an unannounced visit of a safety inspector, who might see a different picture from one who arrived on a known date. The biggest step forward in my view is the National Student Survey (NSS) which lets fall final year students have their say on the strengths and weaknesses of their course. The universities get to see the written comments of everyone who has responded. In my view, this is the biggest step forward in quality control. If my department was at all typical, we took the comments seriously, and laughed at the funny comments too. It has become standard practice to encourage students to provide anonymous feedback on every module they take. I believe HE is trying better and would like to see more uniformity in procedures.

Enrjay says:
26 February 2015

the real issue is the failure of HEFCE and QAA. In my experience of nearly 30 years working in the FE and HE sectors, these organisations have failed to enforce the rules regarding disclosure of information and the rules regarding issues such as course closure.

Students are increasingly seen as simply a source of money in a business where there is a real need for financial transparency and accountability, especially given the charitable status of many universities.

I teach at a university and have done for nearly 20 years. I can assure those of you who studied at university 20+ years ago that the sector has changed beyond recognition in the last 10 years, let alone the huge changes before then. My experience as an undergraduate bears little resemblance to that of my current students and there are both good and bad things about that.

I’m glad to see that the university I teach at comes toward the top of the list. It’s certainly my experience that we don’t change major things lightly and, where possible, such changes are phased in with new cohorts. However, there needs to be some awareness of the long lead times involved in first advertising and then providing higher education. The prospectus for students starting at university in October 2016 probably went to press in November 2014. I teach a programme that involves some 4 year degrees – so the students who read that prospectus written in 2014 won’t actually get to their final year until 2019-2020. That’s a 5-6 year lead time in an ‘industry’ where the government can change our funding overnight. the current £9K fees were being paid by new students less than 18 months after the change was first mooted (well after the prospectus would have been printed!).

We also provide a specialist service. This is not like providing education at secondary level. The modules that I and my colleagues provide are based on current research – and thus need to be updated several times within that 5-6 year cycle – and also reflect our particular specialisms. If a colleague leaves or is unavailable for some reason then their precise combination of specialities may not exist in one other person in the UK, the EU or even potentially the world (let alone one that is actually looking for a job). Modules change because the field moves on or there are a different set of people available to provide them. We are very careful to make clear at open days that lists of option modules (in particular) can only ever be seen as indicative and cannot be guaranteed.

Having said that, I’m not going to say that HE institutions are perfect in the way in which they manage their programmes and publicity. But I do think there needs to be some awareness of the particular issues involved.

Thank you niblo for giving so much more colour to the problem – it helps to give perspective.

You make some interesting points, niblo. The only one I cannot relate to is the impact of losing a specialist. I strongly feel that contingency plans should be in place to cover for this, at least with undergraduate teaching. We managed to cope when a fairly young professor had a heart attack despite having been in good health. The challenge was with taught masters students and particularly several PhD students in his research group. Fortunately colleagues rallied round, but the event did a lot to emphasise need for contingency planning.

The only other significant problem was when two staff in another institution was providing a specialist module for a small number of our second year undergraduates. The students were disappointed and coursework had not been marked, the students involved had the opportunity to discuss the problem both together and individually, and an acceptable solution was found.

You are absolutely right that students should be told in advance that it may be necessary to introduce changes. Twenty years ago it might have been possible to let students down and get away with it, but that is a dangerous path to go down if you want to preserve your reputation.

We do have one undergraduate module which is the only one of its kind in the UK (to the best of my knowledge – it’s not mine, and not in my area so I won’t claim absolute authority on this). It’s impossible to find cover for this if the lecturer isn’t available and, if that lecturer should leave, then it’s very unlikely that their replacement would be able to offer that particular module. But it’s very popular and our students enjoy it and get a lot out of it. Should we deprive them of it because we cannot guarantee that it will run 5 years in the future?

Contingency planning requires some slack in the system and also overlaps in specialisms between staff. I can cite a similar situation with a young professor (cancer rather than heart attack) though timing was on our side as their illness came to light early summer so we had the vacation to re-group and organise cover for teaching. Generally speaking, though, a small department just doesn’t have those resources. And, unlike schools, we can’t draw on ‘supply teachers’ for short to medium term cover – such agencies just don’t exist.

I think it’s up to the HoD to weigh up the risks and have contingency plans, particularly if students may choose a specialist final year or taught masters module because it is highly relevant to their future plans. I would like to see prospective students being warned that degree content may change for unavoidable reasons.

In the department that I worked in, it was normal practice to have a minimum of two staff involved in each module and we had access to our colleagues’ teaching materials, certainly in the modules I was involved in. Had the need arisen, we would have done our best to cover for an absent colleague during the current year. Thankfully that did not happen, though we occasionally delivered our lectures in a different sequence to cope with other commitments, usually related to research activity.

We offered part-time degrees that were popular with staff working in hospitals. They were expected to be on campus one day a week and lectures delivered to full-time students on a different day were made available on video online, via the VLE as a PowerPoint file and a sound recording that had been subject to minor editing by a technician. We were required to do peer observation to identify and record individual strengths and weaknesses. Buddy arrangements were discouraged because most people are not keen to point out deficiencies of close colleagues, but maybe getting to grips with what they are teaching is a higher priority.

When I was a appointed as a lecturer, my HoD recommended that I attended whichever lectures I thought would be most useful and I went to about 25 second and third year lectures in what was a small department at the time. At the age of 30, it seemed a bit strange to be sitting in lectures with 30 undergrads but had one of my colleagues become ill, I might have been called on to give their lectures the next year. With hindsight, I might have been part of my HoD’s contingency plan. When moving house recently I discovered ring binders of notes that I had diligently taken as a novice lecturer. Happy days.

As you say, supply teachers are not available, though I have heard of universities bringing in expertise from other universities to cope with staff not being available.

my course has been changed in the year 2 , can i take any action against university