Freedom of Information Act requests sent by Which? to 142 UK institutions found that over half use terms that give them the freedom to change the content and location of their courses after students have signed up- even if such changes were preventable. The universities surveyed were asked to submit their policies on making alterations to courses after students had enrolled, in addition to their full terms and conditions and any information provided to applicants prior to their arrival.
One in five universities were found to use terms that Which? deem to be unlawful and in breach of the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations set out by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), and approximately one third use terms that the consumer group consider to be bad practice and potentially unlawful. Among this third were King’s College London, the University of Leicester and Aston University.
Following their investigations, which were triggered by increasing numbers of complaints from students about changes to courses after they had begun, Which? is calling on universities to address such unfair terms “as a matter of urgency”. Students who raised concerns about their courses highlighted that modules or larger elements of their degrees were being withdrawn or revised and fees were increasing significantly.
Universities UK responded by commenting that it is engaging with new guidance for this particular sector.
With undergraduate students now paying up to £9,000 per year in tuition fees, the higher education sphere is increasingly being viewed by applicants, academics and institutions alike as a consumer marketplace.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) recently published provisional guidelines on how consumer law applies to the higher education sector, highlighting measures which should be taken to ensure that terms are fair and transparent. Which? confirmed that the results of its survey would be submitted to CMA so that the organisation can check whether or not the establishments in question are complying with its regulations.
In response to the results of the survey, Which? Executive Director Richard Lloyd commented: “It is worrying to see such widespread use of unfair terms in university contracts. Students deserve to know what they can expect from a course before signing up so that they can be confident they will get what they pay for. With tuition fees higher than ever before, we want universities to take immediate action to give students the protection they’re entitled to.”
Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, added her voice to the discussion, saying: “The most recent National Student Survey results show that student satisfaction is at a record high. Universities UK is engaging with the CMA on its draft guidance to higher education institutions, and when the final version is published we will support members to ensure that they are compliant with it.
“Universities frequently offer modules related to the research expertise of particular members of staff. This is an important part of what is unique about the university experience, but does mean that modules offered may sometimes be subject to change. Universities need to clearly state to potential students when this is the case to allow them to make informed decisions.”
A spokesperson for CMA has confirmed that the organisation intends to analyse the results of the Which? survey and will publish its conclusions within the next few weeks. The authority will also advise universities on the deadline for reviewing their policies and practices and making any necessary alterations to ensure that they comply with consumer law.
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