The student complaints ombudsman has warned universities against making promises that they cannot keep in their prospectuses.
The potential legal pitfalls of making overblown claims was further underlined by a warning from a law firm that institutions could face criminal action if they were not entirely clear about top-up fee charges and bursary arrangements under the new funding regime from 2006.
In her first annual report as the independent adjudicator for student complaints, Dame Ruth Deech warns universities that their claims about course quality and facilities in official prospectuses are accepted by the courts to be part of a legally binding contract between the student and university.
Dame Ruth says in the report: "The prospectus is an area that may create difficulties, especially as the relationship between the student and the institution is now accepted as contractual, and it is the assertions in the prospectus that form the initial basis of the contract.
"Institutions naturally wish to set out the full range of courses and facilities in an attractive manner, but there is a long lead time in the production of a prospectus and, in the rapidly evolving situation of a higher education institution, promised facilities may prove not to be available in subsequent years.
"Reasonable disclaimers may prove to be useful," she adds.
In her report, Dame Ruth confirms that 109 of the 147 institutions eligible to join the ombudsman scheme have signed up on a voluntary basis since it started in March. The scheme becomes compulsory early next year.
Dame Ruth says that universities "need to make clear to students what their complaints procedures are" because "some institutions appear unwilling to give students all the necessary information".
Gary Attle, partner at law firm Mills and Reeve, said: "The prospectus forms part of the student-university contract, and universities must get the right balance between selling their service and not overstating what they can offer. It is also crucial that they are clear about what top-up fees they will charge."
He told The Times Higher that he had already had one case in which a university narrowly escaped criminal prosecution by the Trading Standards service after it charged higher fees for a part-time course than the students had been led to expect in a prospectus.
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