Consumer Protection & Hybrid Teaching

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In this post, Tracy Slaven Deputy Secretary for Strategic Planning Governance outlines a framwork for hybrid teaching in the context of consumer protection leglislation and students’ rights.

What’s consumer protection legislation got to do with Higher Education? Putting to one side a basic resistance to the assertion that education is a product rather than a co-creative process; the guidance from Competition Markets Authority (CMA) for universities is helpful as a framework for our decision-making as we prepare for hybrid provision next academic year.

Guidance from CMA for Higher Education on compliance with consumer protection legislation wa issued for the first time in March 2015. Consumer legislation hadn’t changed. The production of the guidance reflected the transition of the sector towards the competitive market envisaged in the 2010 Browne Review of Higher Education; which recommended the removal of the cap on tuition fees and demands for significant improvements in the information and guidance available to students to support the investment they make in their choice of degree and institution. Whether or not a student pays tuition fees, we shouldn’t move past the fact that our students make huge commitments in their time, in living costs and the potential impact on their career decisions.

There are three key rights for students:

  • Information provision – universities need to provide up front, clear, intelligible, unambiguous and timely information.
  • The terms and conditions that apply to students need to be fair and balanced.
  • Complaint handling processes and practices need to be accessible, clear and fair to students.

The first action taken by CMA, post publication of the guidance, was against UCL and addressed the fairness of terms and conditions. UCL, and later a number of other institutions including Glasgow University, was required to change policies which prevented students from graduating because of non-academic debts and to publish their commitments. This fundamentally articulated that requirement for separation between our contractual relationship with a student related to their programme of study degree offer and other relationships which are incidental to that – such as a decision to use university accommodation. The case raised against the University of East Anglia, has the most resonance with the current Covid-19 situation and the changes we are making to our programmes. UEA had changed the content of its degree courses (programmes in UoE terminology) to include additional compulsory modules thus reducing the choices available to students. CMA didn’t have a problem with the action. The issue was that UEA had considered the change to be insignificant and had not informed its applicants or students on programme who were also impacted. As a result of the investigation, UEA changed its policy voluntarily and no Court action was initiated.

Concern about compliance with consumer legislation in higher education is abundantly clear in the messages from both the Office for Students and from the Department of Education in England. While neither has authority in Scotland the extent of their concern impacts through UK wide organisations such as UCAS, preventing changes in offers and delaying the “decline by default date”, and the introduction of student number controls to limit increases in the number of English-domiciled students admitted in 2020/21. The concern in both instances being that universities might behave unscrupulously, pressuring applicants to commit by turning condition offers to unconditional to secure students and offset financial pressures.

UK higher education providers – advice on consumer protection law

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