Deal fairly with students, universities told
Universities have been told to deal more fairly with students by the Competition and Markets Authority.
Some "still have work to do" to fully comply with consumer protection law, says CMA senior consumer director Nisha Arora in an open letter.
The CMA has already "taken targeted action" to improve practices at three universities, the letter to all higher education providers says.
The government must "hold universities to account", said consumer group Which?
In March last year, the CMA set out how universities should comply with consumer law.
This included providing information to allow students to compare courses, and some institutions were asked to amend their practices accordingly.
In October, the CMA began a review of institutions to check their compliance with the rules.
After taking soundings within the sector, the review focused on 25 for closer study.
Of these, three were singled out for improvements, says the CMA.
- University of Buckingham will no longer threaten, apply or rely upon academic sanctions to recover accommodation fees, library fines or other non tuition fee debts
- Bucks New University will drop a contract rule which invalidates student complaints if they attend a graduation event
- Birkbeck University London will no longer apply a rule which stops students using the complaints procedure if they have tuition fees debt.
There were many examples of positive changes, the review found, including:
- updated policies and terms to end academic sanctions when students are in non-academic debt
- clear and upfront information to students on fee changes, additional costs and possible course changes
- better information for staff on consumer protection obligations.
The review warns that universities could be in breach of consumer law for the wording of contract clauses which:
- allow wide discretion to vary tuition fees or cancel or vary courses
- are not clear about additional costs
- prevent students progressing or graduating if they owe non-academic debts
- attempt to deter complaints.
In the letter, Ms Arora says that the CMA has not reviewed all higher education providers so these concerns may be prevalent in the sector.
She therefore urges universities to review and change their contracts and policies to make sure they comply with the law.
In a statement, she welcomed the "constructive" commitments made by the three universities and the action taken by other institutions to improve their compliance with consumer protection law following last year's review.
"For most students going to university is an expensive, once-in-a-lifetime event and one where they should receive the best possible experience," said Ms Arora.
Alex Neill, director of policy and campaigns at Which? said choosing a university was one of the biggest decisions young people make, "yet they often struggle to find the information to enable them to make an informed choice".
"The CMA's investigation shows that while some universities are taking steps in the right direction, others still have a way to go.
"The government must ensure that all universities comply with consumer law and give the proposed new Office for Students the powers it needs to hold universities to account who fail to do so," said Ms Neill.
Professor Rebecca Bunting, vice-chancellor of Buckinghamshire New University, said it had been contacted by the CMA in March 2016 and asked that it address "a number of questions around our compliance with consumer rights law in relation to documents published on our website".
Prof Bunting added: "This process has provided the university with a constructive opportunity to ensure our policies and procedures are fully up to date and in compliance with the relevant legislation."
A Buckingham University spokeswoman said it was confident that its contracts, complaints procedures and information to students were now fully consistent with CMA guidance.
A Birkbeck spokesman said the university was "committed to providing clear and accurate information for applicants and students and has been happy to work constructively with the CMA to give even greater clarity".