Universities must learn to cope with students as consumers, says expert

Out-Law Analysis | 22 Mar 2011 | 11:26 am | 2 min. read

OPINION: As universities put the finishing touches to their prospectuses they should take particular care this year, because planned rises in tuition fees will forever change the relationship between universities and their students.

From September 2012 universities in England and Wales will be able to charge up to £9,000 in tuition fees per year, and many universities have already signalled their intention to charge the full amount.

This will change the way that students see their universities. As costs rise for so will expectations. Students will be more focused on making sure they get their money's worth. How? One way will be by looking to enforce their contractual rights.

Students rarely think of it like this, but there is a contract between them and their universities: when a university makes an offer, and it is accepted, a contract is formed, incorporating all sorts of documents including the student handbook and regulations.

But what is often ignored is that the contract will also incorporate the prospectus. Promises made in the sparkling prose in the brochure being sent to the printer in spring will help to define a university's obligations far down the line.

The prospectus is a representation made to a student which directly induces them to enter a contract with a university. So its accuracy is vital. Students are consumers, and universities wil be held to account under consumer protection law if they behave differently to how they promised they would.

So what should universities do? First of all, they should make sure that their prospectus is accurate and does not make false promises. But situations arise that a university will not be able to forsee, and the law recognises that, so well-judged disclaimers are vital.

A disclaimer does not give a university free reign to do whatever it likes. Contracts with consumers must be fair, and that applies as much to disclaimers as anything else. If a university is going to change a student's course or a major part of its service it should have a reason.

So a disclaimer should aim to be reasonable, and should give good reasons for any changes. When providing that the university may cancel or merge courses, for example, the university should try to list reasons why this may happen. These might include a reduction in public funding; third party industrial action, or other reasons beyond the organisation's control.

It is also important to let students cancel a contract without penalty if there is a substantial variation to it.

This should not mean that every student prospectus is a riot of close-printed legalese. It will be accepted that a prospectus is a piece of marketing and that some broad promises can be made, for example about "the fun you will have at university".

What should be avoided are specific pledges about particular aspects of the service, such as the quality of accommodation or teaching staff. A disclaimer cannot protect against such sweeping promises, so they should be avoided if there is any chance that they will not be kept.

The significant changes to higher education funding will have ramifications for many aspects of university life, and prospectuses are just one area that will change. Students and in some cases their helicopter parents will begin to behave more like consumers than ever before, and universities should make sure they are prepared.

By Julian Sladdin, a specialist in universities law at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM.