There are 3 main consumer law topics for students that are addressed in this article:
- Universities need to provide forward-looking, straightforward, intelligible, unambiguous and timely information.
- Terms and conditions-the terms and conditions of universities that apply to students must be fair and equitable.
- Processes and practises of complaint handling: universities need to ensure that their complaint handling procedures and practises are open, transparent and equitable to students.
1. Sourcing of Information
A big decision is to determine when and where to study. A lot of students spend a lot of money and time on their undergraduate studies. It is important for universities to provide you with the data you need so that you can make an informed choice about which universities and courses to apply for.
Colleges are required to provide you with details in advance, such as when they advertise courses, so that you can make an educated decision about where to apply. Under consumer law, this is recognised as material data. Material knowledge is, in our opinion, likely to contain the following:
(a) Details on the Course, including:
- title of the course;
- The conditions for entry (both academic and non-academic) and an indication of the criteria for the standard/typical offer level;
- The main modules for the course and an indication of potential optional modules, including whether there are any optional modules that are normally supplied annually;
- Details about the course composition and how it will be delivered, and the balance between the different components. This will provide the amount and type of interaction hours you can expect, such as workshops, conferences, job placements, and assignment reviews, for example. It will also include the projected workload, such as the expected time for self-study, and descriptions of the overall level of experience or status of the employees involved in delivering the various elements of the course;
- The overall assessment method(s) for the course, such as, or a combination of, tests, coursework or practical evaluations;
- The award to be received upon successful completion of the course and, where applicable, by the awarding agency or body;
- The research position or potential locations should also include the probable or likely location of any work placements to be carried out (where known);
- duration of the course;
- Whether, for example, the course is approved by a specialist, legislative or regulatory authority and by whom
(b) Overall expenses for the course, including:
- Tuition fees should include, if necessary, if fees will grow in future years and by how much (for example, in line with inflation). This should be made clear if increases refer to only a specific category (such as foreign students) or in relation to a particular course. If the future fee is not specified, the requirements for any future changes and how the changes will be measured should be clearly indicated by universities. Notice that any future fee increases should be restricted to limited situations where there are compelling reasons why the university makes the change; and
- You are likely to incur other incidental expenses, such as field trips, bench fees or studio hire. Universities can also say how much it is or is possible that these increased costs will be. Universities should determine how they will be measured, whether they are unknown or unsure, and whether they are optional or mandatory for undertaking or passing the course. It is especially necessary for universities to highlight any costs of the course that are likely to have a direct effect on the outcomes of your course or educational success, for example a field trip which will contribute to work or a grade.
It should also be defined by colleges when and how fees and all other expenses are payable and when you are responsible for payment.
What happens if the material information is not given to me, is portrayed in a deceptive manner, or I can’t locate it?
You should have quick access to material details up front, including whether you are deciding which university and which course to apply for, and whether to accept any offers. The data may, for example, be made accessible via the university’s website, prospectus, and course and departmental manuals. This may constitute a violation of the law known as a false omission under consumer law if this information is not given or made accessible, or it is obscured or difficult to access.
An example of a deceptive omission could be when a university does not tell you about the particular additional costs associated with studying a specific course, such as field trips for a geography course or studio hire for a design course, which might have prompted you to select another course or university if you knew about them.
2. Terms & Conditions of Your Course
The terms and conditions that may be laid down in a variety of documents and procedures, such as rules and regulations and contract documents, shall lay down your rights and responsibilities with respect to the university and your obligations with respect to the university.
The conditions of a university have to be equal, open and clear. Any words that may be especially surprising or significant, and whose importance may be overlooked, should also attract your attention to a university. A provision that sets out how tuition fees can adjust during the course could be an example of such a concept.
The terms and conditions of the university should be brought to your notice before you consider a position offer, such as when you obtain the offer at the latest. Before you are asked to accept them, you should be provided with a fair opportunity to read and understand the words.
What are my rights in regards to changes to the course?
Terms allowing modifications to be made to the course, for example, would not automatically be unreasonable as there has to be a sufficient amount of flexibility, such as allowing modifications to recent theories and experience in a field. This must, however, be balanced against the overriding requirement that the service you intend should be received.
For example, a phrase that offers a university the right, for whatever reason, to remove or cancel a course before it starts is likely to be deemed unfair.
What are my rights in regards to fees?
It is important that you know how high the total course fees would be before you apply for a university location, so that you can analyse and compare your options and prepare your finances.
It is possible that a term that requires a university’s broad discretion to raise fees during a course is unreasonable. An instance of this will be when a university retains the right at any time and by an infinite amount to raise fees.
It is less likely that a term which enables a university to raise fees during the course would be discriminatory if:
- In addition to details about course fees generally, straightforward and reliable information about possible fee changes is explicitly drawn to your attention up front, so that you know if and how fees might change;
- It sets out the limited circumstances and valid reasons why fees can rise, such as in line with inflation to reflect higher costs of course delivery;
- Rises are related to an objective index, such as the inflationary price retail price index. Similarly, or furthermore, capped rises are less likely to be unfair;
- If the increases only refer to a certain group of students or a specific course, this is clearly explained;
- Ahead of the next academic year, the university informs you of any fee changes in time (although this alone would not make a term fair); or
- If you are negatively affected by the move, for example, if you wish to transfer to another course or university as a result of the rise, you can terminate your obligations to the university (although we acknowledge that this is likely to be difficult for you).
3. Processes and practises of complaint management
The processes and policies for managing grievances from a university need to be easy to find, accessible, transparent and fair to students.
When and how should I be told about the procedure of managing complaints at a university?
Before you accept a place offer from them, universities must provide you with information, in a durable medium, on their complaint handling policy. Under the CCRs, this is a condition.
The complaint process should usually be easily found and available to you, for example on the website or intranet of the university. If it is not, then, under the CPRs, this may be a deceptive omission.
You should also be provided with straightforward and reliable information by the university about its policies for handling complaints. This refers to its written data and to everything that workers tell you orally. Not doing so could be a violation of the consumer laws. It may, for instance, amount to misleading omissions if:
- Where responsibility for complaint handling lies where a course is delivered in conjunction with, or funded or awarded by, anyone else is not made clear to you;
- For providers who are part of a college system, it is not clear where the responsibility for the handling of complaints falls between the individual college and the collective university body, and at what point a complaint may be escalated from the college;
- Details of any external complaint or redress mechanism that you might be able to escalate grievances to, for example, the OIA or the SPSO, are not given.
- The university does not explicitly define the mandate of any external complaint or remedy mechanism, for instance in relation to the form of complaints it might consider; or
- The university maintains details on how to use the complaint process, or does not make it clear, for example, where you raise issues at an informal level but are not told that if the matter is not resolved satisfactorily, it is possible to make a complaint more formally.
What are my rights with compliants I make?
Failure to deal fairly and reasonably with complaints may amount to unfair practise under the consumer rights laws, may fail to meet professional diligence requirements, and may also be a potentially unfair term. This could, for example, occur if a university:
- misleads you about your contract rights or how you can exercise these rights.
- has no complaint process which sets out and/or provides:
- does not provide clear and fair timescales where you can expect to hear back s applicable, about your complaint at each stage of the process;
- does not provide clear and reasonable timescales for you to respond to any request for further information from a university; and
- does not provide information for internal escalation if a complaint in the first instance is not resolved satisfactorily.
- imposes unreasonable barriers that prevent, hinder or deter you from exercising your rights under the contract. For instance, you may need to attend a specific location that is some distance from your location for complaints about progress. For distance learners or those studying on satellite campuses, this may be especially relevant; or
- Fails to respond to complaints adequately and address them.
When I have a concern, what can I do?
If you believe that your university may not have fulfilled its obligations under consumer law, you may want to address this in the first instance with:
- University-speaking to university staff, such as those who have a role in delivering the course or who have a role in advising students;
- your local student union or representative of the NUS; or
- Citizens Advice or Consumerline (Northern) (England, Wales and Scotland)
Trained consumer advisers staff are available at the Citizens Advice and Consumerline helplines and websites. They will be able to advise you about whether or not a university seems to have fulfilled its legal obligations to you. They can also provide you with advice on your specific problem and possible remedies.
You may also be helped to report a problem to Trading Standards by the Citizens Advice consumer service.
If you require any further advice please contact us.