Universities have been warned by the Competition and Markets Authority that they “may be in breach of consumer law” if they fail to meet obligations to students.
The CMA today publishes advice for higher education institutions to “help them comply with consumer law when dealing with students”, as well as guidance for undergraduates advising them of their rights under consumer law.
The guidance says that changes to fees or aspects of courses could be “unfair”.
It follows a recommendation from the CMA’s predecessor body, the Office of Fair Trading, that a “compliance review” of higher education should be carried out to see if some rules for students break consumer law.
The “60-second summary” for higher education institutions published by the CMA says: “Consumer law generally applies to your relationship with undergraduate students. The key issues to consider are your information provision, terms and conditions, and complaint handling.
“If you do not meet your obligations, you may be in breach of consumer law and you risk enforcement action. In some circumstances students may also have the right to take legal action against you and/or seek redress.”
The guidance says that students are entitled to information prior to the start of courses so they can make informed choices. The CMA says this information includes “the course content and structure”, the “total costs of the course including tuition fees and any additional costs associated with the course, such as field trips, lab equipment or bench/studio fees” and “terms and conditions, including any rules and regulations that students are bound by”.
Before or when offering places to students, higher education institutions “must tell them of any changes since they applied and give ‘pre-contract information’ which includes course information and costs, information on complaints handling, and any cancellation rights”, the guidance adds.
It also says that “terms allowing you wide discretion to change important aspects of the course or fees may be unfair”.
The guidance concludes: “Failure to comply with consumer law could lead to enforcement action.”
Nisha Arora, senior director, consumer at the CMA, said: “Consumer law is an important part of the wider academic relationship between higher education providers and students. It helps to ensure that students are given the information they need to make an informed choice about what and where to study and are then treated fairly during their period of study.
“With the UK higher education sector playing a key role in our economy and having an enviable international reputation, compliance with consumer law is an important way of maintaining student confidence and the standards and reputation of the sector.”
The CMA says it is separately considering the current regulatory regime in English higher education.
Today’s report follows a study published by Which? last month that suggested many universities were using “unlawful” terms allowing them to make “unfair” changes to courses midway through a degree.