Which? report finds only five per cent of universities use good practice

Drastic changes universities make to courses, and which students are forced to accept after they have already enrolled, may contravene consumer law, a report has found.

An investigation by the consumer magazine Which? has revealed that due to the increased marketisation in the higher education sector, the policies of more than half of British universities potentially breach the 1999 Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations (UTCCR).

An in-house consumer lawyer, who analysed policies obtained via Freedom of Information requests, said that only five per cent of universities use terms that Which? considers to be good practice, while only one institution – the University of York – meets the best practice criteria.

One in five providers (20 per cent) offer “unlawful” terms, while three in ten (31 per cent) use terms considered to be bad practice or “likely to be unlawful”. Nearly four in 10 universities did not provide enough information about their policies, “making it difficult for students to know where they stand.”

A contract is deemed unfair, according to the law, if it leads to an imbalance between the consumer and the provider. Which? revealed that some of the worst offenders were able to make sweeping changes to the structure of courses after students had enrolled, while other universities had the power to make changes in certain circumstances, or with the consent of the students affected.

Which? has passed the evidence to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) along with a number of recommendations, including the need for the entire sector to come together to draw up clear and consistent terms that comply with consumer law.

A previous report, published last November, found that an increasing number of students do not believe their degrees represent value for money.

Universities UK, the body that lobbies on behalf of universities, argued that “student satisfaction is at a record high”.

Nicola Dandridge, the group’s chief executive, told The Telegraph: “Universities UK is engaging with the Consumer and Markets Authority (CMA) on its draft guidance to higher education institutions, and when the final version is published we will support members to ensure that they are compliant with it.”

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.”

The Consumer and Markets Authority (CMA) did not respond to our queries at the time of writing, although confirmed it would publish guidance for the higher education sector in the coming weeks.