Report claims one in five universities breaching consumer law

One in five UK universities may be in breach of consumer law, a recent investigation by consumer watchdog Which? has claimed, with almost a third guilty of bad practice.

The investigation found that small print in university terms allows institutions to change courses at their own discretion, including in some cases the ability to increase fees.

The University of Edinburgh was amongst 40 institutions ranked as a ‘D’, reflecting the use of ‘bad practice’.

Other Edinburgh institutions also performed poorly, with Edinburgh Napier ranked category ‘C’, denoting ‘in need of improvement’, Queen Mary’s University ‘E: unlawful practice’ and Heriot-Watt ‘F: inadequate information to assess practice’.

Megan Dunn, Vice President for Higher Education at the National Union of Students (NUS), said: “We have always said that the ways that universities can currently dramatically change – or sometimes entirely close – courses during a student’s studies is completely unacceptable.

“A student who has applied to study a specific subject in good faith should not be left in the lurch due to the whims of the university.”

Alison Johnstone, Lothian MSP, told The Student: “Choosing which courses to take is a major decision for any student, so they deserve maximum clarity about the different modules before enrolling.

“Edinburgh’s universities need to end any unfair practices which leave students needlessly frustrated about their choices.”

Some universities reserve the right to increase fees year on year, with students at Kings College London reporting a £1,200 increase in tuition.

The University of Edinburgh has guaranteed fixed tuition fees for all students. A spokesperson told The Student: “The University of Edinburgh continues to be committed to providing clear information on our terms and conditions – with changes in course options reflecting demand from students and cutting edge research.

“We understand the impact of fee changes on our students and introduced fixed fees for our international undergraduate students in 2014/15, allowing them to budget for their entire course.”

However, changes to courses with little notice continue to inconvenience students, as one Edinburgh student commented: “It is frustrating that the University can change locations, sometimes on a weekly basis, without giving a minimum of 24 hours notice.”

All universities contacted by The Student denied their terms were unreasonable and many contested the investigation’s credibility.

Responding to the investigation in an open letter to the student body, The Royal College of Art stated it “categorically rejects any suggestion that its terms are unfair”.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for St Andrews University told The Student: “With all due respect to Which?, this is a fundamental example of why education is not a consumable like a washing machine or a new car.

“The whole purpose of education is to learn how to change – it’s a process of evolution, courage in the face of surprise, and letting go of expectations. So a survey which is, at its heart, intolerant of change represents a flawed analysis of our world-leading HE sector.

“Any examination which fails to celebrate these strengths, and finds only 0.8 per cent of respondents to have met its standards of best practice, must surely question the plausibility of its criteria.”

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The Student Newspaper 2016