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Consumer rights in higher education

Nicola Dandridge

Nicola Dandridge

Former Chief Executive
Universities UK
Student support service desk
I recently attended a fascinating dinner jointly hosted by Which? and UUK where we discussed the relationship between universities and their students and the role that consumer rights can play in shaping this positively. The recent review by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), including the publication of guidance on applying consumer rights law in higher education, makes this a live and important issue for all institutions.

One of the main themes of the discussion was how to apply consumer protection law and its terminology to the unique and multi-faceted relationship between universities and their students. Students are not just ‘consumers’ who pay for a course and qualification to be delivered to them. Students ‘co-create’ their education through their work and commitment to their studies and experiences at university. This is not just a view held by universities. In this year’s Student Academic Experience Survey, of those students who said their experience was worse than they expected, the top reason given was ‘I haven’t put in enough effort myself’ (36%).

This is not to say that universities do not have important responsibilities to their students. The terms of their study must be fair and the standards of their courses and teaching experience must be up to standard. Students must also be able to voice concerns if they are being treated unfairly. But we would not want to see a situation where universities are wary of making sensible changes – such as a change to course content to reflect a change in staff expertise – because they feel they must stick rigidly to what was set out in the information students had when they accepted their offer. There is a point at which mitigating against any potential legal risks could result in both the student and the university being left in a worse position if variety and innovation is being stifled.

The discussion also explored situations where students might be happy with a more conventional transactional consumer relationship. This was identified as an issue in recent research carried out by the University Partnerships Programme (Work hard play hard: lifestyle and employability at university, 2013) which found that students were prepared to pay more for their course in exchange for a guaranteed ‘graduate level’ job when they left universities. UPP have suggested that this willingness to pay a premium for the outcome of guaranteed employment may mean some students have a more ‘transactional notion’ of fees. Notwithstanding this expectation, it is essential that a consumer relationship does not put pressure on academic standards.

The discussion unearthed the complexities and challenges facing the sector as it responds to a more consumerist approach. There is a responsibility to comply with the law and clarify the relationship between student and providers. But ultimately it is essential that consumer protection law does not undermine the complex but fundamental relationship that exists between a student and their university. These are challenges that universities will need to address, in partnership with Which?, but most importantly in partnership with students themselves.

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