Sam Fearnley on the findings of the new Which? survey
The consumer advice group Which? has released a report into how universities change courses once students are already enrolled.
The group found that 58% of students had experienced some sort of change to their degree, with over 26% of these students claiming the change had had a ‘significant impact’ on them, and 35% of them saying the change was ‘unfair’.
For the report, Which? made a number of requests for information, and received replies from 131 higher education institutions.
The team assimilated the establishments into five different groups – A to E – with those in A having the best practices, and those in group E having the worst.
Of all 131 universities, only one managed to obtain a grade A: The University of York. The university was commended for its consultations with students, its beneficial changes, its planning, and its offer of protection if the change was negative and unavoidable.
The criterion for group B was similar to that of A, but universities in this group tended not to consult students on any changes. There were only seven universities in this group, including Imperial College London and LSE.
Category C is where UCL sits. This category is named as ‘needing improvement’. These universities were recommended to improve their policies regarding any changes, but some universities were commended for planning the alterations well. Other universities in this category, alongside UCL, were Edinburgh Napier, Exeter and Manchester.
There were 40 universities in category D, which was named ‘Bad Practice’. These universities were criticised for giving themselves full discretion and offering limited remedies for the changes. Universities in this group were Oxford, SOAS, Durham, Bristol, Edinburgh and Cambridge.
The universities in this category were found to have terms and policies which may potentially be in breach of the law, specifically the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999.
Category E (the worst) described those universities that Which? argued were breaking the law. These universities provided no help to students, other than merely notifying the changes or trying to minimise disruption. 26 universities were included here, including King’s College London, Loughborough, St Andrews and Cardiff.
The report provided a quote from a King’s College London student,
“My fees increased by £1200 in my second year. I thought this was extremely unfair. I thought my fees were going to be the same for the rest of my course … I still think that while the university has the right to increase international fees every year, current students should not be paying more and more every year – they should be paying the same amount they paid their first year.”
Another category was added, which included those universities which provided inadequate information. The team at Which? noted that although it was possible these universities were not breaching any laws, any student would find a lack of transparency or contradictions, which would make it difficult to know whether their course could be changed.
Although legally required to deliver any information made by request, a number of universities did not reply to the appeal.
A consumer lawyer at Which? found that 51% of universities use policies that allow extensive discretion to alter courses after a student has been enrolled.