Yesterday’s foray into the ever controversial world of university tuition fees came in the form of a BBC report criticising the “disgraceful arrogance” and even foolishness on the part of some universities for advertising tuition fees of £9250 for undergraduate courses beginning in 2017.
The furore appeared to centre on the fact that Parliament has not yet approved the Government’s proposal to allow fees to be increased by inflation for those institutions with the required quality rating. Parliament might not give its approval and therefore institutions were being presumptuous.
Leaving aside for the moment whether and in what form Parliamentary approval is needed, such criticism overlooks the requirements of consumer protection law. It is unlawful, in some cases a criminal offence, for a trader (in this case a university) to advertise a service (in this case a course) without publishing “material information” about the course. This information includes the fees to be charged. Where information about fees is unclear, universities may be prevented from charging fees at a higher level than was apparent from the published information.
Recruitment cycles being what they are, universities are having to advertise courses commencing in 2017 now. They have to publish a price for those courses. It is not their fault that the Government has not pursued the required approval process more diligently. They have to proceed on the basis of the best available information, which right now is that they may be able to charge higher fees. On that basis they can either advertise the price as £9000 but reserve the right to increase it by inflation or in line with statutory limits, or they can advertise the price as £9250 subject to government confirmation.
Either is likely to be acceptable from a consumer protection point of view, but the latter is clearer as to the worst case scenario for the prospective student, and therefore arguably fairer. In the event that Parliament were somehow to refuse to sanction the increased fees, then prospective students who received fee information based on the £9250 limit will find their courses £750 or more cheaper than they had been told – not the worst position to be in.
Interestingly, OFFA has not faced criticism for assuming that fees will be allowed to increase and asking institutions to plan accordingly. Indeed, OFFA has suggested that institutions will be permitted to charge the inflationary fee increase to their continuing students if they are “in full compliance with consumer law”, a frankly punishingly high threshold given the state of most institutions’ terms and conditions in the past. This would in any event represent a departure from the historical legislative approach to earlier fee increases, which were generally only to be available for new cohorts.
For a full explanation of TEF and tuition fees increases, read our guide here.