19th February 2024

Degrees of compliance

Trading Standards has been brought in to ensure that students embarking on university life are protected from misleading claims.

By Richard Young
Students pay a significant amount of money for their courses, so it’s right as a regulator that we require providers to meet their obligations to students under consumer law

Education is an expensive business. With university tuition fees costing up to around £9,000 per year, in addition to the costs of necessities such as accommodation, course materials and living expenses, most students will graduate with significant debt that they will be paying off for years to come. For young people heading to university for the first time, the optimism of starting a new chapter in life can fade quickly if, after the excitement of freshers’ week has worn off, they realise they are not getting quite what they paid for.

The Office for Students (OfS) is the independent regulator for higher education in England. It exists to ensure that students are supported in accessing and progressing through higher education, that they receive high-quality academic experiences, and that their rights are protected while they study.

In 2023 the OfS published ‘Protecting students as consumers’, an insight brief examining the challenges facing students. Nike Gustave, Compliance and Student Protection Manager at the OfS, explains: “We have two main areas of focus as outlined in our strategy for 2022-25: first, on quality and standards, and second, on equality of opportunity. We’re seeking to ensure that students receive the good-quality higher education they were promised by their provider, and that their interests as consumers are protected.”

NTS partnership
In November 2022, the OfS entered into a collaborative partnership with National Trading Standards (NTS), under which potential consumer protection breaches by higher education providers can be referred and investigated. These include unfair terms and conditions in student contracts; false claims to have degree-awarding powers; and misleading advertising by ‘essay mills’ (organisations that allow students to commit academic fraud by commissioning written work).

Michele Manson, Business Team Manager at Buckinghamshire & Surrey Trading Standards, is coordinating that NTS partnership work. “I would consider students to be a group of consumers who are potentially vulnerable,” she says. “They’ve just left home, some have travelled to a new country with English not as their first language. They are vulnerable not just in relation to the contracts for their education, but also their accommodation, and they may not be as financially aware, or as aware of scams — there are certainly some scams that specifically target students.”
Gustave agrees. “One of the things we are acutely aware of is the power dynamic and the significant imbalance between students and their higher education providers, who are autonomous organisations. Students may be vulnerable in the sense that some providers are not protecting their consumer rights and we sometimes see that providers have contracts which contain unfair terms,” she says.

“Students pay a significant amount of money for their courses, so it’s right as a regulator that we require providers to meet their obligations to students under consumer law. We try to make sure there is balanced information that students can access, and they can compare courses on a like-for-like basis.”

The OfS has already referred several matters to NTS, relating to terms and conditions that are not clear, intelligible and unambiguous; unfair charges; and terms that seek to limit a provider’s liability. One referral related to an unregistered provider.

Manson says: “The main issues were around the wording of contracts, and ensuring they are understandable and accessible to students. Occasionally we come across conflicting terms, or terms that don’t make sense.”

In May 2023 the CMA updated its ‘UK higher education providers – advice on consumer protection law’ guidance, which forms the basis for much of the work being done in this area. The document, which is available on the CMA’s website, gives an overview of the relevant aspects of legislation — specifically, the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 and the Consumer Rights Act 2015.

It also gives information about proscribed practices, and notes: “The advice is particularly important given the extent to which higher education providers’ funding comes directly from students […] Consumer protection law is an important aspect of a higher education provider’s relationship with students, together with the existence of a supportive learning and pastoral environment within an academic community.”

Brought to book

The Covid pandemic significantly disrupted higher education, with many students isolated in digs or halls of residence and joining classes remotely. As in so many aspects of life, almost four years on, the lingering effects of that disruption can still be felt. “One of the things we expect higher education providers to provide is information about what study actually looks like; the mode of study and the blend of remote learning versus actual time in classrooms,” Gustave says. “They also need to think about how the student experience aligns with what they’re promoting and advertising — things like places of study, information on lecturers, access to libraries and other facilities, class sizes, and the types of support students have access to.

“The key thing is that all of this is regarded as pre-contract information. It is material information which students are relying on, and they’re using that to inform their decisions. It’s really important that it is accurate and, if there are any changes to a course, it is important that they are drawn to students’ attention in a timely manner.”

Although the OfS has no powers to determine if a provider has breached consumer law, its partnership wih NTS provides a route for enforcment action to be considered. “We have always had a relationship with enforcement bodies so that areas of poor practice which adversely impact students’ consumer rights are addressed,” Gustave says. “Where we see poor practice, Trading Standards can liaise with those providers to address the harm and ensure compliance with the law.”

An additional benefit of those referrals — and any regulatory actions which result — is that the outcomes can set a precedent which could help iron out future problems. “We can consider the case for publicising the findings made by Trading Standards. This may provide more clarity to the sector on these issues,” Gustave says. “Ultimately only a court can decide if the law has been broken, and there is currently limited information on how enforcement bodies interpret clauses used by providers. Publicising these findings will increase visibility which should in turn strengthen compliance with consumer law and ensure that students’ rights are protected.”

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