Universities need a lecture in consumer law

Following a review of universities’ terms and conditions, Which? is calling on the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to examine evidence that suggests students are being left open to unfair changes to courses, and that some providers are failing to ensure that their terms are complying with the law.
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Following a review of universities’ terms and conditions, Which? is calling on the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to examine evidence that suggests students are being left open to unfair changes to courses, and that some providers are failing to ensure that their terms are complying with the law.

The CMA recently published draft guidance on how consumer law applies to the higher education sector, including measures to ensure terms are transparent and fair. We are calling for the regulator to check if universities are complying with its guidance at the earliest possible opportunity.

Our call comes after we sent a Freedom of Information Act request to universities across the UK to shine a light on the terms and policies they set out on changes to courses once students have enrolled.

We found that:

  • Only one university – University of York – uses terms that we consider to be best practice
  • One in five (20%) use terms that we consider to be unlawful and in breach of the UTCCRs
  • Three in 10 (31%) use terms that we consider to be bad practice and likely to be unlawful
  • Just 5% of universities use terms that we would consider to be good practice
  • Nearly four in ten (37%) universities didn’t provide enough information for us to analyse, which means it’s likely that students don’t know where they stand

We found a number of cases where the universities’ terms or policies gave them complete discretion to make negative changes to courses, but offered no remedy to students. Others had terms and conditions that were very difficult to access, particularly due to length and jargon.

We want to see universities offering best practice terms and conditions, and only allow for changes that are beneficial to students, that are non-material or genuinely outside the provider’s control, or where the affected students gave their consent. Very few universities’ terms stated that they consult students in advance and/or offered a remedy to students, such as compensation or support to change course

Our work on terms follows our report – ‘A degree of value’ – which found that, in the context of much higher fees, an increasing proportion of students think that their course is poor value for money.

Six in ten students (58%) we surveyed had experienced a change of some kind to their course, for example an increase in fees or changes to the location. Of these, 26% felt that at least one of the changes had a significant impact on them and a third (35%) felt that at least one of the changes was unfair.

We want all providers to ensure their terms are complying with the law and for the higher education sector to consider a standard, consumer-friendly format for student contracts.

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