Universities warned against consumer law violations

The Department for Education and the Competition and Markets Authority have warned providers that withdrawing offers due to oversubscription is a breach of consumer law

The Department for Education (DfE) has today written to vice chancellors in England reminding them how consumer law applies to the higher education admissions process.

Minister for higher and further education Michelle Donelan has issued the letter due to Office for Student (OfS) concerns that some higher education providers may have clauses in their contract with students which allow them to withdraw offers if a course is oversubscribed. The OfS states that “providers should not use such clauses as doing so would likely contravene consumer law”.

In tandem with the minister’s letter, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has re-iterated its views on how consumer protection law applies to:

  • higher education offers
  • terms which could allow HE providers to withdraw or cancel offer after a student has accepted it (and met any entry conditions)
  • terms which limit or exclude liability where HE providers seek to withdraw or cancel an offer

 

“Prospective students should be treated fairly by businesses, as required by consumer protection law,” the CMA states.

“When an HE provider makes an offer of a place to a prospective student and the offer is accepted, in our view a binding contract is made between the HE provider and student. The HE provider has agreed to reserve a place and allow the student to enrol on the relevant course if they meet any specified entry requirements (where applicable).

“The terms of that contract must be fair. If terms are unfair then they are unenforceable against a consumer (i.e. student). It should be noted that transparency is not enough, on its own, to make a term fair – as fairness includes a consideration of the content of terms as well as the way they are expressed”.

In August 2021, the University of Liverpool cancelled a master’s course just weeks before the start of the new academic year, citing increased pressure on resources from a bumper undergraduate enrolment.

The University of Cambridge hit the headlines in February 2021 when it was inaccurately reported it had altered its terms and conditions to allow it to withdraw offers to students on oversubscribed courses. The university clarified that the clause in fact told students that, if their first-choice college was oversubscribed, they might have to consider voluntary deferral or a place at a different college that was not their original choice.

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