How to manage student expectations

  • From October a new Consumer Rights Act will give students greater powers to request a refund if they feel a course is unsatisfactory, or doesn’t meet the terms of the initial contract
  • Students may be able to claim back their entire tuition fees
  • Universities are being urged to comply with the Act, and adopt a robust, proactive position to defend themselves against any future claims

The rights of the consumer have spread through society in recent years, giving the buyer more say in the service they receive. One last bastion of traditional thinking has been higher education – but that position has been shifting in recent years and the consumer spotlight is now shining more brightly than ever before on the higher education sector, with students gaining more consumer power over the services they receive.

Last year, universities in England and Wales paid out a total of £400,000 in compensation to 200 students, following complaints. Disputes over academic issues, such as marking or degree classification, formed 61% of the complaints.

Modern students – faced with expensive tuition fees and an ever more socially aware society, are demanding better provisions, services and value from their university. Expectations are at an all-time high.

And this pressure is set to increase for universities from October, when the new Consumer Rights Act comes into effect.

Student rights

“The Act allows students the right to a repeat performance if parts of a course do not meet required standards or if sub-standard services are delivered,” says Seray Kitchingman, a solicitor at law firm Weightmans, which specialises in advising higher education institutions.

“The student will have the right to a price reduction if it is not possible to repeat the service or if the repeat performance is not performed within a reasonable time. In extreme situations this could mean tuition fees being paid back in their entirety.

“Complaints have increased in the last decade – not least due to the incremental rise in fees. Students are now more aware of their consumer rights and know they can complain. Legislation is shifting towards consumers, and universities must understand and comply with the Act, so they are in a robust position to defend themselves against any future claims.”

Complying with the Act

To comply with the Consumer Rights Act, universities need to be clear, consistent and focused in the messages and information they give to students at all stages of the application process – this applies to information provided to students when they first approach a university, right through to the offer and enrolment stages, the course of study and right up until graduation. Staff should be informed that all correspondence needs to contain this clear messaging.

“Under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, all oral, written and online statements must be correct, particularly if they may impact a student’s decision to attend a particular HE provider,” says Kitchingman.

“Inaccurate information could breach the Consumer Protection Regulations as a misleading action. An example of this would be if you inform students that a particular lecturer will be involved in a course at an open day, or even over the phone, and this is in fact not the case. All information presented to students at each stage of their dealings with any HE provider must be accurate.”

Meeting student expectations

Universities are investing in measures to meet students’ increasing expectations. Examples include improving student services and investing in capital projects to demonstrate a high-quality environment, or simply maintaining and improving educational standards and service provision.

Jo Farrington and Karen Stephenson of Weightmans, who both specialise in advising universities on student issues, say they have seen a rise in the past few years in specialist “student-focused” roles within universities, most notably Pro-Vice Chancellor of Student Experience. This is in order to ensure that universities are doing as much as they can to meet student expectations, deliver a consistently strong service and respond rapidly to the constantly evolving nature of the higher education sector.

With more emphasis on universities having to provide a service, students may start to assume that it is the university’s responsibility to provide them with a degree. The increasing focus on student rights does not, of course, negate the need for a student to fulfil their part of the contract and undertake the work required to complete their chosen course of study. However, what universities do or do not do to help students achieve this is likely to be examined more closely than ever before.

While all universities want to help their students succeed, they also realise a failing student can compromise league tables standings and be more likely to complain.

However, with almost 50% of all UK sixth-formers now moving into higher education, not everyone can achieve their goals. And pulling a failing undergraduate through, only for them to fall at the final hurdle, could result in even more claims.

For universities moving forward, striking the right balance, and managing student expectations, will be crucial in reducing future student complaints.