Work has been undertaken with colleagues in SRAOS and University Marketing to ensure that centrally-managed recruitment activity and central communications to prospective students is undertaken in line with CMA guidance. Staff in departments must also ensure that they take the following steps in dealing with prospective students:
(a) Review all ‘pre-contract’ information about courses of study (departmental; joint and interdisciplinary) to ensure it remains accurate and up-to-date. Changes to pre-contract information should be identified to applicants as should any ‘surprising’ terms and conditions i.e. clauses which it would not be reasonable to assume that applicants with no previous experience of HE would understand and/or terms whose contravention might prevent a student from successfully completing the course. This might, for example, contain conventions relating to core modules that must be passed; pre-requisites for later years of study; calculation methods for modules; requirements for three or four year variants of a degree where students might expect to move between them. Departments should also be aware that the choice of optional modules may also be a significant factor in students choosing to study at Warwick and account should be taken of this in indicating the circumstances in which changes to departmental curricula may occur.
(b) Review ‘material information’ to ensure it is provided in a clear, unambiguous, and timely fashion to all potential students, this to include:
(i) course title
(ii) entry requirements/criteria
(iii) core modules for the course
(iv) indication of likely optional modules
(v)optional modules that are generally available each year,
(vi) course composition information
(vii) contact hours (for lectures seminars, tutorials, work placements, and feedback on assignments)
(viii) expected workload for students and self-study time
(ix) details of general level of experience of staff involved in delivery the different elements of the course
(x) overall methods of assessment for the course
(xi) award to be received at end of course
(xii)awarding body of institution
(xiii) location of study; likely location of work placements
(xiv) length of course
(xv) relevant PSRB or equivalent recognition
(xvi) course timetable information
(xvi) Course costs, including all tuition fees other costs such as field trips, equipment, bench fees or studio hire. All costs known to be a component of studying a course at Warwick should be shared with students or applicants. Any course costs that are likely to have a direct impact on a student’s academic success, such as mandatory field trips on which a piece of assessed work would be based should be highlighted.
The University is moving from a position of advertising fees for the next academic year only to advertising fees for the next three academic years, with effect from Christmas 2015.
The Finance Office has conducted a survey of academic departments seeking information about additional costs and these are being reviewed with a view to course/department specific information being made available to potential applicants and offer holders online later this academic year. In the meantime, departments are strongly encouraged to ensure that information they have gathered relating to additional course costs is published on departmental websites for the benefit for current students.
It is notable that CMA guidance indicates that students going through Clearing or Confirmation have identical consumer rights during these processes as a prospective student applying in the usual way. Colleagues in SRAOS are working with sector colleagues and UCAS to consider the implications for Confirmation and Clearing. Further guidance in this area will circulated as soon as it is made available.
All universities must ensure the following steps are taken with respect to enrolling students:
(a) Ensure that it is clear that the student will be entering into a contract with the institution at the point that the offer is accepted by the student.
(b) Ensure that the information made available at the offer stage is not changed from that given at the pre-contract stage, unless agreement to the change has been given by the applicant.
The CMA advises that the contract/offer accepted by the student should last for the full duration of the course, with milestones to be achieved in order to progress to each next period of study to be clearly stated. This implies information relating to credit loads; pass marks; variation in modes of assessment and implications; pre-requisites; classification conventions and any other rules or guidance followed by boards of examiners in considering students’ academic profiles for progression or conferral of awards. Recent casework suggests that departments must consider particularly carefully full disclosure via online publication and direct notification to students of all criteria used by boards of examiners in considering attainment and making progression/classification decisions.
The CMA does not consider that re-enrolment for each year of study should trigger a new contract being entered into for that year of study. This means that changes proposed by departments to courses or otherwise affecting students’ experience must be subject to a process of consultation and communication by departments with their student community, in the first instance via the SSLC system.
The CMA also advises that changes should only be made out of necessity rather than provider convenience; departments are advised to bear in mind that material changes should not be made casually.
Any University’s regulations form part of a student’s contract for admission onto a course, and are therefore considered by the CMA likely to be subject to the test of fairness under the unfair terms legislation. If a term is found to be unfair, it will not be binding on students and cannot be enforced. Any terms indicating that an institution or a department has wide discretion to varying elements of the initial offer are likely to be deemed unlawful.
Care should be taken to avoid such statements and to provide specific examples of changes that may take place and how such changes will be managed, noting opportunities that students will have in terms of consultation and communication. Departments will wish to consider information provided in student handbooks and online about the learning environment offered and reasons why changes may take place. Staff turnover, development of the academic discipline, availability of new teaching techniques; technological advances suitable for integration; new assessment methods and introduction of new option modules informed by staff members’ research interests are all perfectly legitimate and desirable changes, likely to benefit students, but care should be taken to alert students to potential changes early; engage students actively in discussions about the impact of changes and consider the timing of these.
Examples of terms that the CMA have identified in the HE sector considered open to legal challenge under unfair terms legislation include terms allowing an institution unreasonably wide discretion to vary course content and structure, or to increase the fees during the duration of the course and terms seeking to limit the institution’s liability for sub-standard performance of the educational service.
Departments should pay particular attention to ensuring that:
(a) Necessary information (as set out above) must be clearly signposted on websites and not located on student/staff intranet pages that require password access.
(b) Necessary information is available and accessible from a prospective student’s first contact with the University, since only making relevant terms available at enrolment would be considered unfair. Late provision of material information will also extend the cancellation period.
(c) Necessary information should not be located in numerous separate documents or in different places on webpages, thus making retrieval and review difficult. Neither should they be formatted into very lengthy documents or use difficult to understand language, jargon or acronyms with which students are unlikely to be familiar. Departments should be mindful of the majority of applicants’ very limited knowledge of higher education and of international students’ lack of knowledge of the UK’s educational tradition. Departments should also be mindful that many potential students will be less than 18 when researching their options.
(d) Information or requirements that might be considered ‘surprising’ should be specifically raised, for example; terms whose contravention may prevent a student from completing their course, notably those in relation to conduct (covered under disciplinary regulations, appropriate use of University IT facilities etc.) but also in relation to attainment and progression, and the procedures used by boards of examiners for consideration of student cases.
(e) Where variation in course or wider service is indicated, students should be given clear information in advance about the change, how it will operate, and, ultimately, their right to cancel their contract with Warwick and switch HE providers if changes are made. In such instances, support should be provided to students who opt to pursue a course elsewhere in the form of managing their transition appropriately. Such cases are likely to be few and far between but the impact upon individual students can be high.
The CMA advises that changes/variations in terms are less like to be open to legal challenge when valid reasons are given for the variation and anticipated mechanisms and timetables for change are set out clearly, and communicated to students in good time before the change is to take place.
Universities are advised that blanket terms, where a student assigns all of their IPRs to their institution are likely to be considered unfair. Where it is reasonable and appropriate for the University to require a student to assign it specific IPRs, this should be clearly set out and drawn to the attention of the student at the earliest possible opportunity.
Terms that employ the use of academic sanctions for non-academic related debts (such as accommodation or childcare) will be open to challenge under unfair terms legislation. Warwick has amended Ordinance 16 to bring practice into line with these requirements.
(i) Where a proposed change to a course would effect a course-level learning outcome or material information, student feedback from the cohort(s) to be affected by the proposal should be sought in addition to student representatives on the relevant Staff Student Liaison Committee(s), i.e. the student body should be consulted in the widest possible way prior to any changes being proposed. Ideally, this would be via a direct e-mail to individual students affected, giving them an opportunity to respond with feedback by a given date, after which feedback would be considered and any alterations to planned changes made to accommodate reasonable feedback. The affected cohorts should then be notified of the effective date of the changes originally proposed. Where further changes have been made in the light of feedback, these should also be communicated.
(ii) Where an approved change to an advertised course will affect a course-level learning outcome or previously published ‘material information’, current applicants should be informed. Please may I ask you to ensure that any communications of this nature are provided in draft form to the Head of Admissions in SROAS (Kim Eccleston), both to check content and to make sure that the correct applicants are identified for receipt. This request follows an erroneous communication having been sent to an out-of-date applicant pool.