Students 'subjected to unfair course changes'

By Katherine Sellgren
Education reporter

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionStudents pay their institutions up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees

Some UK students are subjected to unfair changes to courses, according to the consumer group Which.

Which issued Freedom of Information requests to 141 UK universities for documents setting out the institutions' right to vary courses after enrolment.

Of the 131 who responded, 40 were considered by Which to have policies that demonstrated bad practice while eight needed an improvement in terms.

Universities UK said it was engaging with new guidance for the sector.

With undergraduates now paying up to £9,000 a year on tuition fees, the higher education world is increasingly seen by students as a consumer market.

Which is calling on universities to address unfair terms "as a matter of urgency".

It suggests the higher education sector comes together to create a standard consumer-friendly format for student contracts.

It also calls on the Competition and Markets Authority to check which universities are complying with its new guidance on how consumer law applies to the sector.

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionWhich says students deserve to "know what they can expect" from a course

The study by Which also found:

  • Six in 10 (58%) students had experienced a change to their course such as changes to modules or location of teaching
  • One in 10 (12%) had experienced an increase in tuition fees either part-way through the year or between years
  • A third (35%) of students that had experienced one or more changes thought one or more of these was unfair
  • One in 10 (9%) said they would have considered a different course if they had known about one or more of the changes before applying
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Example of terms used by universities:

  • "We reserve the right to alter the timetable, location, numbers of classes, method of delivery, content/syllabus and method of assessment of your programme, provided such alterations are reasonable. We have the right to withdraw your programme or combine it with others."
  • "The university reserves the right to make variations to the contents and methods of delivery of courses, to discontinue courses, to merge or combine courses and to vary fees, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary."
  • "The university may alter the timetable, location, number of classes, method of delivery, content, assessment and syllabus of your course, provided such alterations are reasonable. The university may also withdraw courses before they have started."
image copyrightNot Specified

The report says that variations to degree courses once students have enrolled "pose a significant risk of detriment".

And course providers need to "ensure the impact on their student body of any potential changes is at the centre of their policies".

It adds: "In our view, variations to courses should only be allowed where the change is beneficial to students, or necessary in response to an event outside the provider's control that it could not plan for."

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionWhich says variations to courses should only be allowed where the change benefits students
image copyrightNot Specified

Concerns raised by students

  • "When they changed the name of our programme, they changed all the modules and their content. They put more of one aspect than others and completely eradicated other aspects. If I had known that I was going to be doing all this, I would've gone to another university as this wasn't what I signed up to do initially."
  • "My fees increased by £1,200 in my second year. I thought this was extremely unfair. I thought my fees were going to be the same for the rest of my course."
  • "My course is split between two locations which are about an hour's drive away from each other which was something we were warned about but not told how often we'd be in the location an hour away, it's split 50/50 and it is very inconvenient and expensive."
image copyrightNot Specified

'Unfair terms'

Which executive director Richard Lloyd said: "It's worrying to see such widespread use of unfair terms in university contracts.

"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.

"With tuition fees higher than ever before, we want universities to take immediate action to give students the protection they're entitled to."

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said that the most recent national student survey showed student satisfaction was at a record high.

Ms Dandridge said her group was engaging with the Consumer and Markets Authority (CMA) on its draft guidance to universities and would support its members to ensure they were compliant with it.

She added: "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."

A spokesman for the CMA said it would "carefully review" the Which findings.

"The CMA plans to publish its final advice in the next few weeks and will make clear by when it expects universities to have reviewed their terms and practices and made any necessary changes to ensure compliance with consumer law.

"The CMA will subsequently review compliance, and the Which findings will help to inform this work."

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