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Universities – meeting the consumer rights challenge

Danny Turner

Policy Intern
Universities UK

​The competition watchdog the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has, since last year, been working with universities to ensure they comply fully with consumer protection law and that students are treated fairly.

This includes making sure that universities provide enough information to allow students to compare courses and that clear and upfront information is available on things like fee changes, additional costs and possible course changes.

The CMA recently released its 2016 report on universities' progress. The report found that universities had made progress towards compliance and were more aware of their obligations, but that there was still action required on issues such as complaints procedures and information provision.

The Office for Students (OfS), to be set up by the Higher Education and Research Bill, will include compliance with consumer rights as part of the regulatory conditions for entry onto its register of higher education providers.

In light of this, Universities UK ran a self-assessment exercise during the summer of 2016 to help universities evaluate and benchmark their approach to ensure they were compliant with consumer rights law. Over 100 institutions responded to the self-assessment survey, showing how seriously the sector is taking its consumer rights obligations. 

What did we find out? 

The survey showed that many universities have made significant changes to comply with consumer rights: 

  • 84% of institutions report that they are now clearly signposting students to a stable website with their terms and conditions.

  • 93% of institutions have carried out a review of their compliance following CMA guidance.

  • 84% of institutions reported changing the information they provide about their programmes in response to CMA guidance (see chart below). 

Figure: Following the CMA guidance, have you changed the information that is typically presented about programmes?


 

Many universities were already compliant, and the requirements of consumer rights laws have complemented existing practice. There do, however, remain challenges in a number of areas such as ensuring changes are made in good time, the use of academic sanctions for non-academic debt, and terms that allow fees to vary widely. 

A more extensive account of consumer rights and UUK's self-assessment findings can be found in a report we have published today.

The unique relationship between student and university 

What underpins all this is the unique relationship universities have with their students. Universities have responsibilities to students to ensure they are treated fairly by providing them with transparent information, fair terms and conditions and clear complaints processes.  

But students are not just 'consumers' purchasing a 'product': education is created through collaboration, and by hard work on the part of the student as much as their university. The ongoing challenge is to ensure that consumer rights make a positive contribution to this relationship. 

Moving forward 

Consumer rights can be a great opportunity for universities to refine their own procedures, further build trust with their students and share good practice. The proposed Office for Students will encourage competition between English higher education providers, provided this competition is in the interests of students and employers.  

The challenge for universities is to succeed within this environment while also upholding their responsibilities to students; to ensure what they do is fair to the whole student body and that their unique, collaborative relationship with students is not compromised.

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