Which? decries ‘unlawful’ terms in small print

A report on university course changes by the consumer watchdog caused a stir this week

February 12, 2015

A report by the consumer watchdog Which?, alleging that many UK universities are using “unlawful” terms allowing them to make “unfair” changes to courses midway through a degree, caused a stir online last week.

Which? found that about half of universities use terms that give them the freedom to change courses after students have signed up.

Of these, 26 used terms that Which? deemed to be unlawful, allowing them what the report described as an “unfettered discretion to increase fees year on year, where no indication is given as to the likely size of the increase”.

Some students cited in the report complained that their course had been switched from 100 per cent coursework to 100 per cent exams after they had signed up, and many universities failed to give any details about what compensation students could expect if a course was altered significantly.

“Generally, the sector could do with revisiting how course changes and closures are handled to minimise adverse impact on students,” writes Smita Jamdar, partner and head of education at law firm SGH Martineau, on the company’s blog.

“Having established this, Which? could have used this report to facilitate, promote and, if required, lead a much-needed dialogue within the sector, involving other stakeholders as necessary, to develop a much better way of doing these things.”

But Ms Jamdar expresses disappointment that Which? “instead…[has] chosen to adopt a rather blunt-edged ‘name and shame’ approach most likely to raise hackles and divert attention on to ultimately rather unconstructive debate about legal drafting and interpretation”.

The wording of the contractual terms, she says, is only one part of the story. “What an institution actually does in practice when changing a course is another, equally important part.

“I know some institutions whose written terms may not be to Which?’s liking, but who have in practice approached changes to courses very much in the manner described as ‘best practice’.”

She has also seen universities with “well-drafted terms” whose actual practice she describes as “much less student-focused”.

“It really does not seem particularly satisfactory to have a public report that makes generalised allegations of unlawfulness without any court ruling, or any prospect of one,” she concludes.

“Which? describes its mission as to ‘make things better for consumers’. In choosing to adopt a confrontational approach in this report, it has, in my view, missed a valuable opportunity to do just that for both students, and indeed the sector.”

The report provoked many responses on social media, too. On Twitter, Daniel Stevens (@dc_stevens), policy and external relations officer for the British Council, said he was pleased the report had “highlighted the awful practice of universities increasing international fees between years”.

However, Casey Brienza (@CaseyBrienza), lecturer in publishing and digital media at City University London, was less concerned. “Seriously???,” she tweeted. “All the stuff they’re moaning about here is normal in the US. Time to grow up.”

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to chris.parr@tesglobal.com

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