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How does consumer protection legislation apply to universities and what does it cover?

In March 2015 the Competitions & Markets Authority (CMA), successor to the Office for Fair Trading (OFT), produced compliance advice following a call from the OFT for information on the Higher Education sector in England. The advice was replaced by an updated version in May 2023. The advice sets out how consumer protection law applies to higher education providers, and includes the views of the CMA on how consumer protection law applies to the higher education sector.

The CMA advises that consumer protection law applies to the relationship between HE providers and prospective and current undergraduate students. The CMA advises that their advice may also be relevant to HE providers of other types of courses and other students where consumer protection legislation applies, thus widening the relevance from UG to PGT, PGR, Professional Qualifications and Diploma and Certificate levels of study.

The CMA advice focuses on compliance with the following consumer protection legislation:

(a) Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (2008)

(b) Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation, and Additional Charges) Regulations (2013)

(c) Unfair Terms Legislation (at the date of publication of the CMA guidance relevant legislation was the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999

Since the publication of the CMA guidance, the Consumer Rights Act has also come into force (1 October 2015) which has consolidated fragmented consumer protection legislation, including the 1999 legislation referred to in (c).

The CMA guidance comprises three areas:

(a) Information provision: the need to provide up front, clear, accurate, comprehensive, unambiguous and timely information to prospective and current students. A prevailing theme of the legislation is that consumers/applicants are able to make informed choices i.e. before they accept an offer of a place they have a reasonable degree of certainty regarding the nature and extent of the academic (or other) service the University will provide and the cost they will incur.

(b) Terms and conditions: the need for terms and conditions that apply to students to be fair and balanced, and ensuring that HE providers do not rely on terms that are to the students’ detriment.

(c) Complaint handling processes and practices: The need to ensure that complaints handling processes and practices are accessible, clear and fair to students.

The CMA expects all HEIs to consider this guidance, review relevant practices, policies, rules and regulations to ensure that they comply with consumer protection law, or make necessary changes to ensure compliance. In addition, HE providers are expected to put mechanisms in place to ensure that all faculties and departments are complying with the guidance, make all necessary information available to all staff, and ensure that it is understood and followed. Non-compliance with consumer protection law could result in enforcement action by the CMA, or local authority Trading Standards, or by students individually or collectively. Such enforcement action could mean civil proceedings or criminal prosecutions against certain breaches, as appropriate.