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Which? finds one in five universities breaching consumer law

One in five universities is breaching consumer law with small print that allows it to make last minute changes to courses, new research suggests.

The Which? University investigation found widespread use of policies which allowed institutions to alter courses, even when students had already enrolled, in a range of circumstances. Other policies lacked detail or were too confusing for students to understand.

The report is based on responses to a Freedom of Information request by Which?, asking universities for their rules on course alterations and cancellations.

It found that 20 per cent of universities applied policies that were “unlawful”, usually by retaining absolute discretion to vary courses at the eleventh hour as they see fit. A further 31 per cent had policies that were likely to breach consumer protection law.

Just 5 per cent of universities had rules which were considered to be “good practise”. Only one – York University – had an approach which positively protected the rights of students by consulting on changes and requiring unanimous consent from those affected.

Some 37 per cent of the 131 universities that responded did not provide enough information for the consumer website to check if the rules on changes were fair, suggesting students would be unlikely to be able to work out where they stand.

The Which? investigation follows research published in a report by the consumer website in November. It found that six in ten students had experienced a change of some kind to their course. Of these, more than a quarter felt at least one of the changes had a significant impact on them and a third felt the changes were unfair.

The findings of the two reports will be submitted to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) which recently published draft guidance on how consumer law applies to universities, including what they needed to do to ensure terms are transparent and fair.

Richard Lloyd, the executive director of Which?, said all providers should ensure their terms are complying with the law and should use a standard, consumer-friendly format for student contracts.

He said: “It’s 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.”

Responding to the report, Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said:

“The most recent National Student Survey (NSS) results show that student satisfaction is at a record high. Universities UK is engaging with the Consumer and Markets Authority (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.”



 

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