A new publication from Which? came out last week, following on from their last HE report “Degrees of Value”.
This time, the consumer group are focusing their attention on the information that is provided to students regarding course changes and fee changes in “Higher education: a review of providers’ rights to change courses”. In turn this is linked to the guidance provided by the Competition and Markets Authority.
The report is based on FOI requests to universities, and according to the Times Higher:
Of these universities, one in five uses terms that Which? deems to be unlawful and in breach of the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations set out by the Competition and Markets Authority. Almost a third (31 per cent) use terms that the consumer-rights charity considers to be bad practice and likely to be unlawful.
The report itself goes on to list universities in various categories: best practice; good practice; needs improvement; bad practice; unlawful practice, and inadequate information.
Leaving aside the idea that institutions can be judged, and indeed named, to have engaged in unlawful practice without any process of law, then there are some important points to take away from this piece of work.
As students increasingly behave in a consumerist way towards higher education, then institutions do need to ensure that they provide accurate information that does not mislead.
However, as I have written before, it is not helpful to consider higher education as a consumerist paradigm, since the “market” does not work in the same way as that for the purchase of other goods or services. Students need to be engaged partners in the learning process, not just passive recipients of knowledge transmission.
Universities are required to map all their processes regarding provision of information to the QAA Quality Code Part C but to cite QAA processes on this matter would be the last refuge of a scoundrel.
Higher education is a dynamic and ever changing area, and so courses do inevitably change with time. There is an opportunity here for institutions to be much clearer about how they manage those changes, and in particular how the student voice is part of that decision. Indeed, students should be part of that co-creation process.
In order to avoid complaints, then as well as providing clear and lawful terms and conditions, universities need to be able to demonstrate clearly to students and others exactly how changes might be made to the range of option modules, the change to a syllabus etc. Although the Which? report highlights negative experiences of students, we have to also recognise that courses change all the time, with the intention that those changes will improve the student experience and outcomes
So, universities do need to be mindful of CMA rules on the information that they provide and work to the QAA code, but more usefully we should also engage openly with our students on how and why we can work in partnership to make necessary changes .