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1st March 2015

Students face ‘unlawful’ conduct at universities

A consumer watchdog has revealed that at least 40 UK universities offer unlawful terms to students

An investigation has revealed that many UK universities may breach consumer law.

The consumer watchdog Which? has shown that due to increased marketization in higher education, more than half of British universities may breach the 1999 Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations.

A series of freedom of information (FOI) requests have been analysed, and, only five per cent of universities use terms that Which? considers to be good practice.

20 per cent of institutions were shown to offer ‘unlawful’ terms, while 31 per cent used terms which are ‘likely to be unlawful’.

Only one university, the University of York, meets the best practice criteria.

This follows a previous report, which found that an increasing amount of students feel that their degree is not value for money following the steep rise in tuition fees.

A second year English Language and Film student at the University of Manchester, who has on average six contact hours on a non-tutorial week, said: “When you work out how much money we pay per day to study, the calculations do not add up.

“Universities have become more corporate, and when you consider their turnover from investments it does not make sense that we pay so much for so few contact hours,” she added.

Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which? 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,” he said.

The report shows that some of the worst offending institutions were able to make drastic changes to course structures after students had enrolled, and changes to the type of assessments used.

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

26 institutions used terms deemed to be unlawful, allowing them, “unfettered discretion to increase fees year-on-year, where no indication is given as to the likely size of the increase,” Which? said.

Of the providers approached by Which?, ten failed to respond to the FOI request, and 49 were criticised for failing to provide adequate information for analysis.

Which? has passed the evidence to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), and called for the entire sector to come together to draw up clear terms that comply with consumer law.

Since this report, Labour have announced that they would cut university tuition fees in England to £6000 per year from autumn 2016.

The Labour leader attacked Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg for his U-turn on tuition fees, which he said: “left a whole generation doubting politics—doubting anyone can be believed or trusted.”

Ed Miliband says a Labour government would pay for the fee cut from £9000 by reducing tax relief on pensions for those earning over £150000 per year.

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