Mary Leishman

undergraduate education
m.leishman@uea.ac.uk

consumer rights of students

Nobody likes thinking of students as 'consumers', but when students pay tuition fees, they enter into a consumer / service provider contract with the University. I'm encouraging UEA students to know their rights as consumers, and to take action when the University is in breach. 

Oxford graduate Faiz Siddiqui has recently been the centre of an extremely high-profile law case, deciding to sue the University for ‘his failure to get a first’. His ‘unexpected’ 2.1 apparently robbed him of the chance to become a high-flying commercial lawyer. Now, 17 years after he graduated, he is attempting to claim £1,000,000 in damages.  

Cue hilarity, right? Privileged student went to Oxbridge, probably didn’t do any work (why not just assume?), still came out with good honours, and still trained as a solicitor. He’s just bitter, and blaming his personal inadequacies on others.  

It’s funny, right?

Right?

… Right?

I’m not actually sure.

Since tuition fees jumped up to £9,000 in 2012, students have begun to see themselves as consumers. They’ve been made acutely aware that they’re buying a service from the University, and they have the right to expect a standard of teaching.

The University’s attitude towards this is complicated. On the one hand, they seem very prepared to treat students like customers – they market to them, they take their money, they sell themselves just like any other service provider would.

But when it comes to discussing what students are entitled to, the University’s tone changes completely. It becomes much more like: ‘Paying money does not make students entitled to anything. Paying money just gets you here – once you’re here it’s up to you to do the work. Paying money does not, and should not, guarantee you a grade.’

This is completely the wrong argument. It twists an important conversation about consumer rights into a pantomime in which students are painted as attempting to remedy their own shortcomings and inability to work hard by whining “but we paid you!”

Because, digging further into the Siddiqui vs. Oxford case, it really isn’t about the 2.1 and the failure to get a first.

It’s about teaching quality.

In the final year of Siddiqui’s degree, four of the seven academics teaching his module (imperial Indian history) were on sabbatical leave. Oxford Uni knew about this in advance, but still ran the module. This placed an incredible stain on the 3 remaining academics, meaning they struggled to fulfil their normal standard of teaching. Come end-of-year exams, out of the 15 students on the module, 13 got their lowest mark of their degree (or joint-lowest mark). And because this was a final year module, it was weighted heavily, and dragged down the overall degree average. For borderline students, this made the difference between degree classifications.

Now, I don’t know Siddiqui. Maybe he’s awful, and the media are correct in their characterisation of him as an entitled muppet. But wasn’t his expectation of Oxford University’s teaching standards quite reasonable? Aren’t we paying for a fair opportunity to study? And, actually, isn’t the University’s failure to provide adequate teaching, or at least inform students that over half the department were on sabbaticals, something that any of us would get cross about?

‘Consumer rights’ is an ugly term, and something that we don’t like to think of being a part of our education. But it is so important that you understand that you have these rights, and you should recognise if the University is in breach.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) acts in the interests of consumers, and they have produced a useful outline as to what rights students have as consumers. You can find it on the Gov.UK website, here.

Broadly, it covers three categories:

 

  1. Information Provision – universities need to provide up front, clear, intelligible, unambiguous and timely information. This means that they need to accurately portray their courses on open days, ensure all marketing materials are representative of the course, and provide you with realistic course costs.

 

  1. Terms and Conditions – universities’ terms and conditions that apply to students need to be fair and balanced. A term which allows the university to make sweeping changes to the course – such as course content, location of study, method of assessment or final award – is likely to be considered unfair. Most courses will have minor changes as modules develop alongside research, but these should be well communicated to you in advance.

 

  1. Complaint handling processes and practice – universities need to ensure their complaint handling processes and practices are accessible, clear and fair to students.

 

UEA have already been taking steps to keep students informed, recently making a commitment to keep their website up-to-date by publicly releasing any changes to degree courses. But remember, if you feel there’s anything about your degree that hasn’t been made clear to you, you can exercise your consumer rights and approach the University with a complaint. You’re paying a lot for your education and you deserve the best!

If you need any more information, or want help approaching the University with any queries or complaints, you can always email me at T.Antoniou-Phillips@uea.ac.uk or come and find me in the SU office.

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