Universities to be held accountable under Consumer Protection legislation?
Looks like no-one is exempt from a requirement to answer to consumers. Universities now have students as customers, paying a fairly hefty £9,000 a year for their course, and some of these consumers are getting a little shirty when the product they are given does not match up to what they signed up for.
Stories abound of students who are forced to change courses, or take on a dual-honour at the last minute, to the perceived detriment to their grades and, potentially their overall degree classification. And when they leave University, they become the product they are trying to sell...
Last month, the OFT issued a report which warned that last-minute alterations to courses and fees might actually be in breach of consumer legislation. While the report acknowledged that bad practices were not "pervasive", it concluded that there was still significant scope for clarifying students' legal rights as consumers- universities' responsibilities towards students as consumers. The OFT was happy to accept "some degree of reasonable change" but Universities who give themselves "excessive discretion" could be challenged under consumer protection law.
Now, the new Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which replaced the OFT from this month, has decided it is so concerned, it is actually going to do something about it. The CMA has now announced a compliance review of the higher education sector, to be held "in the near future", which will examine whether universities are giving students a fair deal for their annual £9,000 fees, voicing fears that universities could be breaking consumer protection law by changing degree courses once students are already enrolled- and most importantly, their fees banked.
Sally Hunt, general secretary at the University and College Union (UCU) which represents academic staff, says its members fear course changes will become more widespread.
"Students often base their choice of institution on course content, so it's imperative that universities strive to maintain the offer that students have signed up to," she says. "Students are now paying a premium to attend university and deserve to receive the education they have been promised. [We are] concerned that the continued squeeze on teaching budgets will lead to these types of changes becoming more widespread as institutions seek to find savings and trim back courses which are less profitable."
Of course, we are a long way off any University being fined under any consumer legislation, but these developments do go some way to protecting students as consumers, and in highlighting the requirement of any service provider to provide a service as described. Shame this latest review will only benefit students…