Lawyer issues warning on prospectus promises

December 17, 2004

Universities risk being sued by students if they make claims in prospectuses or at recruitment fairs that they cannot live up to, a higher education lawyer has warned.

Nicola Hart, head of the universities group at law firm Pinsents, said every university should have a risk management policy to ensure promotional materials are regularly reviewed and checked for pre-contractual misrepresentations. "Only promise what can realistically be delivered," she said.

All documents that form the contract between student and institution should be checked to ensure that all disclaimers are included.

Staff must also be aware that what they say can be taken as a pre-contractual representation, Ms Hart told university administrators at a recent seminar.

The rise of the assertive student meant universities needed to overhaul the way complaints were dealt with.

"Some respond very well, but others feel offended when faced with a complaint and that's not the right reaction to get an effective outcome," she warned. "Do not get into an argument - deal with the problem sympathetically."

Ms Hart said an increasing number of students now took their complaints to the Office of Fair Trading. "They are becoming much more assertive about their rights and will now pursue complaints and appeals internally as well," she said.

A number of universities have been forced to change regulations deemed to be unfair to students after OFT investigations. The OFT has taken action under the Unfair Contract Terms Act, which states that a business's contract with its customer could be unfair and unenforceable if it tips the balance of power against the consumer, if it is not readily understandable and unlikely to have been read by the consumer.

The universities of Keele, Derby, Southampton, Durham, Surrey Roehampton, West of England, Kingston, Sussex and Writtle College have been investigated in the past four years for terms and conditions related to areas including student accommodation, late payment of fees and refunds.

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