Secretary of State Gavin Williamson has written to the Office for Students on (amongst other things) the issue of student consumer rights, and the press are pleased.
“Live up to your promises or pay students back” screams the headline in the Sunday Telegraph, echoing a promise Jo Johnson made (in season 1 of his run as Universities and Science Minister) back in 2017. As we’ve noted over on the main site, if you think you’ve seen this all before, it’s probably because you have – back in July 2017 JJ said that he would consult on whether a “systematic use of an improved student-contract” would help ensure “effective consumer protection for students” paying what will for many be their “third largest life-long expenditure after a home and pension plan”.
This commitment then appeared in the autumn 2017 DfE-run consultation on OfS’ regulatory framework, which promised that OfS would undertake “further consultation on student contracts and student consumer rights” which was to look at whether OfS “should play an enforcement role”, and also “whether students would benefit from the use of model contracts with providers”. Again as we’ve noted before, OfS then said it would do so May 2018, revised it to September 2018, shifted it to December 2018, moved it to January 2019, delayed it to May 2019, planned it for July 2019, and now is suggesting it will stage a Board chat in November 2019. No wonder contracts and consumer rights also made an appearance in the January 2018 and January 2019 “strategic guidance” letters to OfS. It’s almost as if ministers and the regulator need to… live up to their promises to students.
And if you fancy looking further back, it’s not a million miles away from David Willetts’ student charters initiative of the early 10s, Mandleson’s student consumer rights revolution of the late 00s, or indeed John Major’s Citizen’s Charter initiative from the early 90s – which produced both a flimsy “Charter for Higher Education” and a motorway road cones hotline.
Winter is coming
This time round though, there’s good reason to believe that something might happen in the student contracts space. First is the unusually detailed quote from the DfE – whose quote argues that “if you were buying a £500 washing machine you’d have more protection that you do currently, when you’re spending 100 times that and spending three years doing a degree”. They’re also worried about advertising – because “universities promote themselves and their courses in prospectuses and online in the most glowing terms. This is fine unless what is promised falls short of the reality”, which though strong is pretty hard to argue with – and could have been lifted from any number of student officer manifestos.
Writing in the Telegraph, Gavin Williamson sets out his stall, making clear he wants universities and colleges to be “forced to marry up the image in their marketing material” with the “lived experiences” of students:
Universities promote themselves and their courses in prospectuses and online in the most glowing terms. This is fine unless what is promised falls short of the reality.
If you were spending tens of thousands of pounds on anything else – be it a house, an expensive car or a multi-year contract for another service – then you’d rightly expect to have recourse. So should our young people at university.
Students can reasonably expect that what they are being promised as part of the course will be delivered. They must be able to weigh up what is being offered at each university, based on clear contractual terms and if what was sold is not met, then there has to be a transparent and comprehensive complaints procedure to put things right.
This is about fairness, pure and simple. Students are entitled to expect the same consumer rights as the rest of us when they enter into a contract with course providers.”
Since the last round of contracts and consumer promises, there’s also been plenty of other action. The Advertising Standards Authority had to step in on universities making dodgy “comparative claims”. The Competition and Markets Authority have stepped in on numerous individual occasions on unfair contract terms. OfS itself has been framing the debate over conditional unconditional offers as a “pressure selling” practice that’s potentially a breach of Consumer Protection Regulations – introduced by none other than Jo Swinson back when she was a coalition minister. Last year’s industrial action compelled the OIA to do a note on student consumer rights, and we could be due more industrial strife this year. And we also hear that in anticipation of the November look at contracts, OfS is about to issue revised guidance on Student Protection Plans, and has put someone senior-ish on the case on contracts. In fact it’s almost as if DfE has been casting round for policy lines, dug out OfS’ business plan and decided to announce it all over again.
Let’s go round again
As we’ve heard the announcement before, we can reasonably predict the objection lines already. No, you can’t just “buy” a degree and higher education outcomes are about co-production. Doesn’t mean you can’t get your money back if the gym equipment is faulty. Yes, it’s hard to judge the long term “value” of higher education given the variables outside of provider control. But we know that students do want to see some more of the promised “inputs” when they’re shelling out for them – whether that’s through a taxpayer backed loan or additional charges. And yes, giving students better rights will mean a bit more desperate grasping for them when they don’t get the grades – but it’s still the case that when they’re genuinely let down, they’re a minor David battling a powerful, insurance-backed Goliath.
This time round, the press lines are fun for those familiar with the reality on the ground. “Students are entitled to expect the same consumer rights as the rest of us”, says the DfE. They are now. The issue is that they don’t cut it. Students right now, for example, are entitled to the same 14-day cooling-off period from the date a loan agreement is signed as anyone else – but in a university context they obviously need much longer. “There has to be a transparent and comprehensive complaints procedure to put things right”, says Williamson. Sure, but notwithstanding the visibility of the adjudicator, this is already an achieved standard across the sector. “If you were spending tens of thousands of pounds on anything else… then you’d rightly expect to have recourse”. And therein lies the other problem – that announcements like this confuse the right with the ability of students to enforce that right if it’s not met.
“There is not an equal power balance in relationships between students and providers”, said DfE’s consultation on this back in 2017. Fair enough – and putting some more detail on inputs and outputs into student contracts will certainly help. But unless we take deliberate steps to ensure that students understand their rights (both the extent and the limits), and they are supported by independent actors to enforce those rights (because they’re not all going to court soon), then whatever is to come will be pointless. In which event, I’ll see you back here in another ten years.