UK universities have been faced with mounting complaints in recent weeks, with growing numbers of students feeling that their respective institution has failed to provide services to the standard promoted online, according to a report by Pagefreezer.
The SaaS company has warned that universities could risk damaging penalties – including a loss of degree-granting powers – should they fail to address the issue.
The aim of the report is to evaluate the marketing and consumer rights responsibilities of higher education (HE) institutes – specifically the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) guidance document, UK Higher Education Providers: Advice on Consumer Protection Law (CMA 33).
In February this year, Pagefreezer submitted Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to 150 institutions, posing a range of questions regarding how universities are complying with UK laws relating to course and content promotion.
According to the study, 65% of surveyed institutions said they had received official student complaints for failing to deliver programme content to the quality or standard promoted online. Of those respondents, an additional 37% claimed that complainants had already taken legal action to resolve the issue.
On top of this, the report found that HE providers are not fully detailing the promotional website and social media content targeting prospective students in their research and application process. Eighteen percent of Pagefreezer’s respondents were unable to provide evidence of digital promotional content, while just 24% were confidently able to say that their institution has a complete and regularly updated website archive.
One institution stated that it didn’t use social media to market to prospective students, but a quick search on its Facebook profile revealed content regarding the application process, funding and more.
“In not fully understanding their obligations to both students and prospective students, not only are higher education providers putting themselves at risk for complaints and legal matters, they are also putting their ability to reward degrees at risk” – Peter Callaghan, Pagefreezer
“Our research indicates that many higher education providers believe information contained in formal course packs supersedes online website and social content, but this is not the case,” said Peter Callaghan, CRO of Pagefreezer. “In reality, this online information can be considered binding.
“In not fully understanding their obligations to both students and prospective students, not only are higher education providers putting themselves at risk for complaints and legal matters, they are also putting their ability to award degrees at risk. That’s because the Office for Students – a regulatory body created with the express intent of representing the interests of English higher education students – requires higher education providers to adhere to CMA 33 to maintain degree-awarding powers and a university title.”
The report suggests that universities keep permanent, non-editable records of website and social media content, ensuring it adheres to CMA requirements, as well as prepare for regulatory audits and legal matters.
The COVID-19 effect
With the ongoing pandemic forcing institutions to migrate their communications and teaching online, student consumer rights under the CMA are now more important than ever. In light of this, the report recommends that institutions consider how programme changes will reflect on the contract drafted between provider and student.
Any information, regardless of how early on in the application process it is given or encountered, must be up-to-date and accurate. If the information no longer suitably reflects the reality of the learning experience and thus requires changes, the university should, according to section 4.2 of CMA 33, obtain “the express consent of the prospective student”.
On top of this, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator cited a 20% surge in cases of service issue-related complaints from 2018 to 2019. This rise was also evident this year, but since students must follow internal complaint procedures before consulting the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, it is too early for the organisation to report on complaints arising as a result of the pandemic.