1. What is this about?
Making sure that anyone representing the University of Warwick (staff, student helpers etc.) complies with consumer protection law. Consumer protection legislation has applied to the HE sector for some time, however recently-issued guidance from the Competition and Markets Authority, has meant that considerable focus is currently trained on HE practice in this area and the CMA will be auditing HEIs’ compliance with legislative provision from October 2015. This note is intended to support colleagues’ understanding and preparedness, specifically in terms of the application of legislation to recruitment and admission in ways relevant to Open Day activity.
2. What does it mean in practice?
For the purposes of the law, the University is a ‘trader’ and students are ‘consumers’. Applicants are likely to take the information we provide to them into account when making a decision about where to study. Information we give to anyone who subsequently accepts an offer of a place is deemed ‘pre-contact information’ under the law and is therefore binding. Since what we say to applicants as well as what we put in writing can act as a contract we must take care to prevent future students from feeling we did not deliver what was promised.
3. Good practice
(a) You are likely to be asked questions you don’t know the answer to. Do ask someone more knowledgeable if you can, and refer enquirers to specific services where you know specialist knowledge or expertise resides; otherwise take an enquirer’s details and arrange to get back to them after the event. There are lots of experts at Warwick who can help, but if you don’t know who to contact the best resource is: firstname.lastname@example.org
(b) The learning experience in a research-led institution means that the curriculum and learner experience evolve: through the appointment of new staff; the development of new teaching and assessment methods, staff bringing their research interests into new modules; new services and facilities in which the University invests. Applicants and visitors should be encouraged to see this flexibility and change positively, understanding that it contributes to the richness and diversity of their curriculum and experience and that teaching by leading research-active practitioners and researchers necessarily means that things to do not remain static. Please speak to applicants who may have concerns about change, to reassure them about the SSLC system and other forms of student consultation and representation, noting that changes are intended to be in students’ interests and that departments plan their curricula over a long period of time. Clearly there will be factors such as staff turnover which may affect some elements of departmental curricula. Where niche optional modules are offered by a member of staff arising from their own research interests and where other staff may not be able to teach such a module, consideration should be given to considering how to ‘protect’ this area and to reassurances that it may be possible to give to applicants. Student ambassadors should be encouraged to speak from personal experience, e.g. ‘when I studied this module it was like this…..’, rather than ‘this module is taught in this way’ which might imply a generic and enduring experience which cannot be guaranteed.
(c) You are encouraged to discuss current conditions affecting courses of study rather than speculate about the future, e.g. ‘Currently, core contact hours for this course are 10 per week with typical combinations of optional modules giving you a total of 14-18 contact hours per week’, rather than ‘If you take this course you will have 20 contact hours per week’. The very considerable flexibility offered in terms of assessment methods also means that cast iron guarantees about the proportions of taught and assessed elements may be impossible to give and clarity as to the reasons for this should be provided. Where there are existing reference points about department practice and provision e.g. KIS, UniStats, these should be acknowledged and enquirers directed to these.
(d) We must be careful to describe provision, services, experiences, in a tone and using vocabulary which is clearly rooted in evidence available to applicants. A curriculum may well be informed by cutting-edge, world-leading research. However, elements of departmental practice or institutional facilities or provision which cannot be described this way, should not be.
(e) Please be alert to the potential to mislead enquirers by omission. For example, issues relating to an applicant’s ability to pursue their studies successfully where they may have a specific learning issue by virtue of having heard that ‘Warwick does lecture capture’ may be problematic if care has not been taken to ensure that they know whether appropriate online learning resources are provided on the course for which they intend to apply.
(f) Do consider the role that departmentally-managed social media accounts and any student-led social media activity may play in a recruitment context. Institutionally-managed provision should be clearly identified as such, and student blogs or other student-led initiatives referred to as providing an account of current students’ experiences, the implication being that whilst these may be useful and helpful to applicants, a distinction must be made between institutional marketing channels and other forms of activity in which a student voice is just that.
(g) Consider carefully issues such as hidden course costs, about which applicants may be particularly concerned. Applicants should be told about any additional course costs where costs are incurred routinely and indicative figures given. Beyond these, applicants should be advised that a range of costs might be incurred in the pursuit of a course of study depending on its nature e.g. books, printing, lab coats and consumable, field trip experiences, expenses associated with placement learning activity etc.
4. How should I prepare for open days?
- (Make sure you have current and accurate answers to likely questions. Check with colleagues who are information owners as necessary.
- Make sure you know who the expert contacts are for areas in which you don’t have strong knowledge so that you can refer enquirers rather than responding with uncertainty. Check where specialist facilities or services are based in order be able to direct enquirers.
- Consider suitable forms of words for responding to predictable questions.
- Arrange a way of making a note of questions you can’t answer honestly and accurately (and contact details), so you can arrange for a colleague to follow up.
- Be aware that potential applicants and their supporters attending open days may bring along devices enabling them to record presentations and conversations in order to capture information and provide a resource subsequent to their visit upon which to make decisions affecting their eventual choice of destination.
- Keep referring applicants back to institutional level advice and guidance provided via the Warwick study pages and resources managed by SROAS who are auditing the information they provide in the light of Competition and Markets Authority requirements.
- Tell anyone about this guide who you think may need it.