Distinction and Diversity in Higher Education

Protecting the student interest


Students. Know your consumer rights.

The message that universities which do not meet their obligations may be in breach of consumer law came through strongly in last week’s advice for students and providers on the impact of consumer law produced by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The guidance particularly applies to the provision of information, terms and conditions and complaints procedures, but they have indicated that this may be just the start of their interest in the higher education sector.

 

This intervention by the CMA signifies a move towards protecting the student interest that has been building since before this Government pledged to put Students at the Heart of the System. The emphasis that this and other reforms have placed on institutions to reflect on their processes from the perspective of students is welcome and something that many institutions will already consider central to how they do business.

 

This is the second in a series of blogs on different aspects of regulation, following last month’s 50 shades of Dross? That blog called for a Higher Education Bill in the next Parliament and demonstrated the huge diversity in the independent higher education sector, and therefore the different approaches required, from freeing up the excellent providers to clamping down on the “dross”.

 

Institutional failure or exit

The different ethos and approaches from some less responsible colleges was demonstrated to me through my involvement in the Home Office’s Sponsorship Working Group which was set up to support the genuine students caught up in the ETS English language scandal. The way in which some of the private colleges involved responded to losing their HTS licence really highlighted a major gap in the system and in particular the need for greater student protection in the case of institutional failure or exit.

 

A student will have certain expectations about the long-term stability of an institution that receives public funding and is therefore seen as part of the “HE sector”, and this reassurance should be a key aim of any regulatory system.

 

However, in the unusual event of the collapse of an institution there will be legitimate questions from students about the support they will receive. For most students continuity of study is the most appropriate – and indeed desired – first response, enabling the student to have their previous study recognised and be able to complete their studies. But this may not be possible in all scenarios or there may be additional costs of moving to another institution – such as additional travel, fixed accommodation contracts as well as the support needed for international students to move their visas. In these cases there is greater clarity needed on the ways in which students will be supported and how this will be enforced in the event of an institution closing.

 

High quality experiences

Many commentators have linked this increased need to protect the student interest to the fact that in England the students are now the primary funders of their education. But in reality many of these expectations were – or should – have been in place long before the notion of students as consumers. The ultimate aim of any regulatory system should be to provide students with a high quality education that meets their expectations, provides high quality learning opportunities and prepares them for the future.

 

There will however be cases where these expectations are not met and under these circumstances students should have the opportunity for redress. This is something that the CMA have highlighted, and the recent OIA Good Practice Framework is a welcome step, as is the proposed extension of the OIA to private providers in the Consumer Rights Bill. NUS and others have highlighted how difficult it is for students to switch institutions when their experience doesn’t meet their expectations – for whatever reason – and it is likely that the CMA will look at this in the future.

 

In addition to the more formal complaints procedures, institutions address compaints through more informal processes such as open door policies, staff/student liaison committees as well as engaging students in their decision making processes. There is likely to be an expectation from students that these processes both exist and that they are reassured of the impact of this engagement.

 

Conclusion

We believe that protecting the student interest and providing reassurance is both the right thing to be doing and key to finding the balance for minimum regulation requirements for institutions. This student interest includes requirements surrounding receiving high quality education, value for money and student redress where this falls short. Student reassurance will also need to specify their protections in case of institutional failure or exit.