Oxford University has imposed “unfair” contracts on students, a recent investigation has claimed.
The consumer association Which? investigated student contracts at universities across the UK. Oxford University requires every student to sign such a contract before matriculation. Which? found that one in five universities impose potentially illegal contracts on students, specifically concerning their powers to discontinue courses and increase tuition fees.
The investigation studied 131 higher education providers. The analysis was led by a team of consumer lawyers and found that over half of universities are using “unfair” contract terms. A further 20 per cent impose terms on students which contravene the Unfair Terms rules in EU and British Consumer Contracts Regulations.
The regulations define an “unfair” contract as establishing a significant imbalance between student and provider. The investigation found that some universities retained total power to vary courses. When the consumer rights group surveyed over 4,500 students they found this was the primary problem.
The report found 58 per cent of students had experienced changes to modules or locations of teaching and 12 percent had confronted rising tuition fees either mid-way through a year or at the end of the year. The contract for Oxford students states, “The University reserves the right to discontinue, merge, or combine options within programmes of study; and to introduce new options or courses.”
Oxford University was found to have “bad practice”, defined as offering contracts which fall within the law but are unfair. Which? particularly highlighted that the University reserves the right to alter student timetables, the course syllabus, and discontinue courses.
The University rejected these charges, however, saying, “Oxford University takes its responsibility to students as a top priority, and has taken steps to ensure that applicants and students are given full, accurate, and accessible information in all its communication with students. This includes offer letters to accepted students, student contracts, the University’s website, and the student handbook, as well as future University prospectuses. We are also undertaking work to address the evolving area of consumer protection, in light of draft guidance from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the Consumer Rights Bill.”
A University spokesperson also pointed out that this work on consumer protection predates the publication of the Which? report and stressed that Oxford was by no means alone in being singled out.
Which? told Cherwell, “The reasoning for Oxford University being included in the ‘bad practice’ category was due to terms or policies included in the University’s terms and conditions that gave them an unfettered discretion to make changes to courses, but some kind of remedy is offered to students when a change is made.”
Other top universities among the 31 per cent that have been accused of “bad practice” were Durham, Cambridge, Bristol, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Sheffield, Bath, and Oxford Brookes. Only five per cent were found to have “good practice”, with the University of York the sole higher education establishment to be awarded “best practice”.
Which? Executive Director, Richard Lloyd, said, “With tuition fees higher than ever before, we want universities to take immediate action to give students the protection they’re entitled to.”
Which? has submitted its findings to the CMA and want them to conduct a compliance check.
The CMA told Cherwell, “We are in the process of finalising guidance to universities which will be ready in the next few weeks. We are working closely with the Student Loans Company and others to put together some awareness raising work for students and to-be students on what they should be looking for at where they choose to study.”
When asked if they are going to carry out the compliance check that Which? has requested, the CMA stated, “it is a process. We are working with student unions and universities to help them comply with the law.”
James Blythe, OUSU’s Vice-President of Access and Academic Affairs told Cherwell, “I take the criticisms of University contracts from Which? very seriously indeed and will be asking the University for their response. With the Student Written Submission to the university regulator (QAA) coming up, there is an opportunity for students to voice these and related concerns to an external body through OUSU.
“If we believe such concerns relate to students’ academic experiences, we will endeavour to include these in the Education Vision we are writing with students’ input that will be brought to OUSU Council in Trinity.”