Students facing ‘unlawful’ small print at almost 30 universities

Many universities are using “unlawful” terms allowing them to make “unfair” changes to courses midway through a degree, a consumer watchdog has said

February 5, 2015

About half of universities use terms that give them the freedom to change courses after students have signed up, according to a new survey of UK universities by Which?.

Of these universities, one in five uses terms that Which? deems to be unlawful and in breach of the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations set out by the Competition and Markets Authority. Almost a third (31 per cent) use terms that the consumer-rights charity considers to be bad practice and likely to be unlawful.

In total, 26 higher education institutions used terms deemed to be unlawful, which allow them an “unfettered discretion to increase fees year-on-year, where no indication is given as to the likely size of the increase”, Which? says.

Examples of potentially unlawful practice include one university’s statement that “fees are subject to annual increase” and that “students accept fees in the second year and subsequent years of study will increase”.

“It’s worrying to see such widespread use of unfair terms in university contracts,” said Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which?.

“Students deserve to know what they can expect from a course before signing up so that they can be confident they will get what they pay for,” he added.

Which? is calling on the CMA to conduct a compliance check against its new guidance at the earliest possible opportunity to ensure that the next cohort of students are not exposed to unfair terms and poor practice.

The report’s conclusions follow calls by the National Union of Students for course fees for international students to be fixed to stop “unfair” price rises.

The Which? report details how one student at King’s College London saw fees increase by £1,200 between the first and the second year, which the student said was “extremely unfair”.

Some 40 universities are singled out for bad practice on other matters, including the terms that allow them to change the course content, the type of assessment and even the campus where teaching takes place.

Some students cited in the report complained that their course switched from 100 per cent coursework to 100 per cent exams after they had signed up.

Many universities failed to give any details about what compensation students could expect if a course was altered significantly during their studies, the charity also says.

A further 49 providers were also criticised for failing to provide adequate information to Which? to allow it to analyse their terms and conditions.

In some cases, the information provided was incomplete or contradictory or required access to a password-protected information portal, the watchdog said.

Ten universities failed to respond to the Freedom of Information request sent by Which? at all, it added.

The NUS welcomed the Which? investigation. Megan Dunn, vice-president (higher education), said: “This report highlights our valid and long-standing concerns about fairness and protections for students.

“We have always said that the ways that universities can currently dramatically change – or sometimes entirely close – courses during a student’s studies is completely unacceptable. A student who has applied to study a specific subject in good faith should not be left in the lurch due to the whims of the university.”

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said the organisation was “engaging with the CMA on its draft guidance to higher education institutions, and when the final version is published we will support members to ensure that they are compliant with it.

“Universities frequently offer modules related to the research expertise of particular members of staff. This is an important part of what is unique about the university experience, but does mean that modules offered may sometimes be subject to change. Universities need to clearly state to potential students when this is the case to allow them to make informed decisions.”

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