Universities are in breach of consumer law regarding course changes
Caveat emptor, or buyer beware, is a phrase often quoted when referring to something consumers should have thought about when making a purchase. However, with the advent of consumer law and protection, it is no longer true to say that, once you’ve agreed to part with your cash, you are on your own. Or is it? A new Which!!! investigation into university courses has found a number of them to be seriously in breach of consumer regulations by providing a product that is materially different, or capable of being so, than that advertised- and paid for.
The investigation came about after Which!!!’s ‘A degree of value’ report, which raised concerns that universities grant themselves wide discretion to make course changes after students have signed up.
That report found that:
Six in ten (58%) students had experienced a change to their course such as changes to modules or location of teaching;
One in ten (12%) experienced an increase in tuition fees either part-way through the year or between years;
A third (35%) of students that experienced one or more changes thought one or more of these was unfair; and,
One in ten (9%) said they would have considered a different course if they’d known about one or more of the changes before applying.
Which!!! therefore decided to apply consumer law to the products being provided by universities in the UK by sending Freedom of Information requests to 142 publicly-funded higher education institutions that have degree-awarding powers and teach undergraduate students in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Which!!! asked for documents that included details of the institution’s right to vary the courses it offers after students have enrolled.
The results were then analysed by a Which!!! consumer lawyer to see whether or not they meet the requirements for fairness under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 (UTCCRs). Under the UTCCRs, a contract term will be unfair if it creates a detrimental, significant imbalance between the parties; in this case, the student and the provider.
Responses were allocated into one of five categories: excellent or best practice, good practice, needs improvement, bad practice, unlawful practice. The unlawful practice category covered cases where the providers’ terms or policies give them unfettered discretion to make detrimental changes to courses, even if they could be significant or material, but no remedy is offered to students. The results were pretty grim.
Just 5% of universities were classed as having terms that offered good practice, and only one single university – the University of York – uses terms that Which!!! consider to be best practice. Presumably it now gets a Which!!! best buy sticker.
Just over half (51%) of responding universities use terms that give them freedom to change courses even when these changes could have been prevented. Of these, one in five (20%) use terms we consider to be unlawful and in breach of consumer contract regulations. Three in 10 (31%) have terms that Which!!! consider to be bad practice and likely to be unlawful. The full list of universities with the worst terms is included in the table below.
Which!!! executive director Richard Lloyd 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.”
Which!!! are now off to grass the universities up to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and are calling on the regulator to check if universities are complying with its guidance.