Since the announcement that Universities in England and Wales could increase their tuition fees by 200% from £3000 to £9000, there has been a significant increase in complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA).
In 2010 before the increase in fees was announced, the OIA received 1,341 complaints, which increased to 2,371 in 2019. Many commentators believe both complaints and compensation will increase further as a result of the impact of coronavirus.
At the time of the fee changes, the Minister for Universities, David Willetts commented on the proposed increase in fees stating it was a "progressive" reform which would "put Universities' finance on a sustainable footing with extra freedoms and less bureaucracy".
In his statement, David Willets argued that the increase fees would be to the benefit of students as it would offer "greater choice for students with a stronger focus on high-quality teaching".
However, there appeared to be little thought about the potential implications for Universities and the fact, that as a paying customer, the student could be seen as a consumer and as such, be protected by consumer laws?
It is open to scrutiny whether the drastic increase in tuition fees has, in fact, brought about greater choice and improved teaching for students. However, perhaps not so open for debate is the drastic change seen in the education sector, with students undoubtedly seeing themselves as consumers of educational services and their position being strengthened by changes in legislation, namely the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and updated guidance from the Competition and Markets Authority.
What is clear is that these changes have opened a can of worms for many universities wondering what the legal implications are if the law sees students as consumers of their services and what steps they need to take to protect the university's interests.
Understandably, as the cost of tuition increases dramatically, students want to get more for their money. They are expecting and, in some cases, demanding, a greater learning experience, an excellent level of service and the acknowledgement of their rights as consumers of higher education services. It's not surprising that students are now far more likely to raise a dispute with their university or OIA if they feel the service offered or learning environment is likely to have a negative impact on their learning and future career.
Observations from the OIA in their 2019 annual report note the increase in complaints is partly due to "Students' awareness of their consumer rights, and of routes to raise their concerns, continues to grow."
In more recent years there has been a significant increase in complaints to the OIA regarding service levels and the quality of the teaching.
"...increase in the proportion of complaints which relate to
service issues such as the quality of teaching, supervision and facilities. In 2019, 29% of the complaints we reviewed related to service issues in some way."
There are many examples in the media of students taking legal advice to pursue claims, as recently as 2018, it has been reported that 1,000 students are seeking compensation of up to £10 million through collective action for the contact hours they lost during the UCC strikes. The students argued, they had paid for a certain number of lectures, which were not delivered by the Universities.
Perhaps the most notable case is from 2017 when it was reported that the University of Oxford was facing a £1 million compensation claim by a former student, Faiz Siddiqui. Faiz Siddiqui claimed "inadequate teaching" contributed to his low mark in a final year history paper - he lost his bid after the Judge, Mr Justice Foskett said he was not convinced teaching was "negligently inadequate".
Given that students are now more aware than ever of their consumer rights, what can higher education providers and universities do protect themselves from the impact of complaints and claims?
One of the most effective ways of protecting higher education institutions is to seek legal advice and ensure that all their terms and conditions, policies and procedures follow best practice, are well-drafted and regularly reviewed, so they remain up to date. It is also vital that all employees are not only aware of the policies and procedures, but have a detailed understanding of them, and the processes for keeping written records and evidence in case of complaints.
This may seem like self-evident and straightforward advice, but it is a positive first step to ensuring educational establishments don't leave themselves open to legal challenges.