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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?

Comments
Member

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?

Member

Hi Paul,
You can find the full report here: http://press.which.co.uk/downloads/
It is called Higher education courses – a review of providers right to vary courses.

Member
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.

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

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.