Several pieces of consumer protection legislation apply to the relationships between universities and their prospective and current undergraduate students. These include the Consumer Rights Act 2015, the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, and the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013. In May 2023 the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) updated its guidance for universities on how to comply with this legislation. 

This focuses on:

  • The provision of clear, accurate and timely information to prospective students at the application, offer and enrolment stages;
  • Ensuring that contractual terms and conditions between universities and their students are fair and do not disadvantage students; and
  • Having a clear, accessible, and fair complaints process.
As one of its ongoing conditions of registration with the Office for Students’ (OfS), Universities are required to “demonstrate that they have given due regard” to the CMA guidance in “developing and implementing its policies, procedures and terms and conditions” (condition C1). A recent OfS’ Insight Briefing details current regulatory expectations and signals that regulatory activity will focus on mis-leading precontract information and unfair contract terms.

Although consumer legislation is longstanding, the Competition and Markets Authority has been taking an increased interest in Higher Education over the last few years. Its stance has been to make public (and therefore potentially reputationally harming) interventions when an individual institution's behaviour or terms and conditions are drawn to its attention.

The CMA has made several principles clear - particularly that prospective students should be aware of all relevant facts before deciding whether or not to accept an offer of a university place; that those facts should be accessible; that there should be any perceived imbalance in power in universities' dealings with students; and that enforcement action for non-payment must be relevant to the debt to which it relates i.e. that academic sanctions cannot be used to enforce or encourage the payment of debts incurred for non-academic services.

The CMA also encourages individual stakeholders to press claims where terms and conditions, or the application of those terms and conditions, are perceived to be unfair and with more emphasis on institutional self-regulation, there is more scope for CMA intervention.

Universities can benefit from Uniac's extensive experience in assessing CMA compliance.