Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Standard student rights contracts mooted in England

Out-Law News | 23 Sep 2019 | 8:41 am | 3 min. read

The Office for Students (OfS) in England should explore options for setting out students' consumer rights in the form of standard contracts, a senior government minister has said.

Gavin Williamson, education secretary in England, made the call in a letter to Sir Michael Barber, chair of the OfS, in which he said the regulator should "prioritise work supporting students as empowered consumers". This work should include undertaking a review of "the effectiveness of current practice ensuring students’ consumer rights are supported".

The review should particularly "consider options for standard contractual templates setting out these rights", and the OfS should be in a position to make initial recommendations by February 2020, Williamson said.

"Students must be able to apply to university in the knowledge that what they are being promised will be delivered," Williamson said. "They must be able to make their choices based on clear, comparable, and relevant information about what is being offered – and have contractual terms and conditions that are fair, as well as clear and transparent. And students must be able to access transparent and effective complaints processes when their consumer rights are not met."

"Beyond consumer rights, I want every student to be confident their institution stands up for free speech and that they will not experience unacceptable behaviour during their time at university, such as harassment, racial abuse, antisemitism and other forms of intolerance and prejudice," he said.

Consumer and universities law expert Rami Labib of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said Gavin Williamson’s letter "demonstrates that consumer law compliance in the higher education sector remains at the forefront of the government’s agenda and serves as a timely reminder to providers".

"A standard contractual form has long been mooted, but the OfS is now tasked with advising on whether this would be of value and if so, be viable," Labib said. "Our view is that a standard contractual form would be difficult to implement, but nonetheless higher education providers should watch this space and look out for the OfS’ recommendations which are due in February 2020."

In his letter, Williamson welcomed the OfS' decision to open a review of the review of the universities and colleges admissions system and recommended that the review should "consider the pros and cons of potential models of Post Qualification Application (PQA)". PQA envisages an admissions based on students' actual qualifications and not their predicted grades.

"While this has been considered before, the context in which the sector is operating has changed and there has been much recent debate about this topic expressing differing views," the minister said. "Overall, I anticipate that the review will be an opportunity to identify improvements, based on evidence, which will help to further improve and develop the admissions system so that it remains fair and transparent for students both now and in the future, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds."

Rebecca McCall of Pinsent Masons, who like Labib also specialises in consumer and universities law, said: "A review of the current national system for administering admissions and particularly the reference to PQA is a welcome step which, if implemented well, would bring the UK sector in line with international practice. It is likely to have a positive effect on balancing the playing field for students from all backgrounds that meet the provider’s admissions requirements to be able to access higher education at the provider of their choice."

"There remains a concern, however, that the education secretary may be stepping outside of his powers and encroaching on English providers’ institutional autonomy, as enshrined in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, when it comes to setting their own admissions requirements, including in relation to the use of unconditional offers. This is an interesting test of the new legislation; while Gavin Williamson’s letter has been carefully drafted to set the guidance in the context of consumer protection concerns, the sector will still be watching carefully to see how the review process and any recommendations proposed by the OfS arising from it play out and whether that fine line between government policy and institutional autonomy is crossed," she said.

The OfS should also look at what it can do to support international students on issues like integration, mental health and employability, according to Williamson, who said the regulator should collect and publish data "on the outcomes achieved by international students, including those studying wholly outside the UK, such as it does for domestic students".

Further reforms to the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) were also urged in the minister's letter.

"Alongside baseline quality requirements, the TEF is a vital tool for helping the OfS and the public to understand quality and value for money in the higher education sector," Williamson said. "This means I would like the OfS to be ambitious in its plans for the development of the TEF, both in scope and timing. With that in mind, I would like the OfS to publish subject level TEF in 2021."

"This should be alongside the implementation of a new TEF model to be developed following the publication of the government response to the Dame Shirley Pearce’s independent review of TEE undertaken under Section 26 of HERA 2017. This new model should ensure the TEF is seamlessly integrated into OfS’s approach to the regulation of quality more broadly. To ensure that we do not lose momentum, I would also like the OfS to consider running a further provider-level TEF assessment exercise with results to be published in 2020," he said.