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Course changes and consumer rights

The recent undertaking agreed between the Competition and Markets Authority and the University of East Anglia highlights the challenge facing universities in meeting their contractual duties with students when making changes to courses. 

The law is clear that changes can be made in line with the terms and conditions of the original contract agreed at the offer stage. These should set out specific scenarios where changes may happen without use of blanket discretion to vary. Notably, the CMA commended UEA on their commitment to changing their approach.​

This case highlights the complex implications of consumer rights for a wider set of issues beyond just changes to fees, which was the focus of the first round of undertakings. This highlights that universities are required by law to deliver on the contract agreed with students at the offer stage, including pre contract information. However, what isn't in scope is whether this package is more generally considered 'value for money', which is something students are rightly interested in and a wider challenge for the sector.

What is causing some concern in the sector is how to ensure that fair terms and conditions are sufficiently flexible to allow courses to evolve. In order to understand this issue from the student perspective we are doing some work with the polling company ComRes. The emerging findings from their survey research found that students do increasingly see themselves as customers: 47%, versus 53% who didn't, but the survey also revealed nuanced views about the nature of the relationship beyond a simple transaction.​

ComRes also asked students about changes that had occurred to their courses. Unsurprisingly the top three were a change in lecturer (41%) change in content of module (32%) and change in available modules (26%). When asking when they should be notified of changes to courses the vast majority of students expected to be notified within a year –  with 33% expecting this to happen 1-6 months ahead and 35% expecting 6 months to 1 year ahead. 15% did not think a university should make changes to a course once it has started whilst only 3% would not expect to be notified of changes.

Although students wish to be notified appropriately they did not necessarily see changes as a negative. For example, 32% reported an increase in satisfaction in relation to changes in the modules available, against 25% who saw it as a negative – for lecturers this was 23% versus 22%. In fact, students were generally happy for the content of modules to be updated (64%) and for the structure of courses to change in line with lecturer expertise (47%). Unsurprisingly, the only net negative in satisfaction was an increase in tuition fees (11% v 55%).

Comparing these figures against feedback from our members illustrates the need to be clear and upfront about what changes may be made and the subsequent process for informing students. Universities often do not see a change in staff or an elective module, two issues that are usually linked and sometimes outside the institution's control, as a major change. Similarly, most universities did not have processes in place that would enable them to inform students in line with their expectations.

The ComRes survey found that universities still retain high levels of trust in comparison to other types of professions and services. 62% of respondents found that their university had their best interest at heart, second only to an NHS doctor in our list and just ahead of a secondary school (61%), and way ahead of banks (20%) or social media firms (6%). It is a legal requirement for universities to comply with the law but equally the principles of transparency and fairness will go a long way to underpinning a positive and constructive relationship with students. We will be providing more findings from this work in due course.

Leave a Comment

James says:
23 February 2017 at 07:51

How does this question effect the balance between open and closed approaches to learning and research? For example, the study of human culture may be seen as series of fixed disciplines within the Arts & Humanities; (Art History, History, Literature, Psychology, etc.), or it maybe seen as a series of flexible fields of study, as in American Anthropology; (Archaeology, Anthropology, Linguistics, and Folklore).

louise bunce
louise bunce says:
27 February 2017 at 15:34

James - you may be interested in this research I did on student consumers and academic outcomes. I'm working on another piece of research now which suggests that a consumer orientation is related to taking surface approaches to learning. You can access the paper here http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03075079.2015.1127908 

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