Three universities have been told to improve the way that they deal with students, as the Competition and Markets Authority expresses concern about the slow pace of sector-wide compliance with consumer law.
In its first review of consumer law compliance in UK higher education, the CMA says that too many institutions were still using terms that gave them wide discretion to vary tuition fees or change courses, were not clear enough about additional course costs, or prevented students from progressing and graduating if they owed non-academic debts.
But the CMA says that it has so far reviewed information provided to students by only a sample of institutions, so the concerns that it had identified “may be occurring more widely”.
The watchdog, which began work in higher education in 2014, warns that universities that fail to comply with consumer law could face criminal prosecution.
A survey of 66 providers, conducted by the CMA, found that all but one had made changes to the information that they provide to prospective students as a result of guidance from the CMA. A further 77 per cent had amended the information that they provided to current students, while 85 per cent had changed their practices, policies, rules or regulations.
But the CMA says that swifter progress is needed.
“We are concerned by how long it is taking some providers to complete their reviews and implement the necessary changes, where necessary,” the report says. “We would urge providers to ensure these changes are finalised and implemented as a matter of urgency, given it is now over a year since the CMA’s 2015 higher education advice was published and we are approaching the start of the new academic year.”
The undertakings announced alongside the report require universities to remove terms that prevents students from progressing or graduate if they owe non-academic debts (Bucks New and Buckingham); improve information around additional course costs (Buckingham); amend terms that allow wide variation in tuition fees (Birkbeck and Buckingham); and ensure that the complaints process does not deter students from raising or pursuing complaints (Birkbeck and Bucks New).
Nisha Arora, the CMA’s senior director of consumer issues, welcomed the three universities’ “constructive engagement”.
“The CMA expects all higher education providers to comply with consumer protection law and has drawn the findings of its compliance review to their attention,” she said. “The CMA is continuing to look at issues relating to other providers and should we be made aware of other concerns, this could result in further action, either by the CMA, other enforcers, or sector regulators.”
Rebecca Bunting, vice-chancellor of Bucks New, said that the process had allowed it “to ensure our policies and procedures are fully up to date and in compliance with the relevant legislation”.
A Buckingham spokeswoman said that the information it provided to students was “now fully consistent with CMA guidance”. Procedures had “already been revised” prior to the CMA’s investigation, but “had not been published on our website”.
A Birkbeck spokeswoman said that the college was “committed to providing clear and accurate information for applicants and students” and had been “happy to work constructively with the CMA to give even greater clarity”.