On 19th November 2014, the Competition and Markets Authority (the “CMA”) launched its consultation on draft consumer protection law advice, which it proposes to publish for the benefit of higher education providers.  The CMA’s consultation paper confirms that the purpose of the advice is to help higher education providers “understand their responsibilities under consumer protection legislation, when dealing with undergraduate students, and how they can comply with it”. 

Office of Fair Trading Report

The draft advice and consultation follows on from the Office of Fair Trading’s (the “OFT”) report in March 2014, which followed on from its earlier call for information on undergraduate higher education in England.  The OFT’s overall impression was that the English undergraduate higher education sector was working well for students, but concluded that further work needed to be done in three main areas, namely enabling student choice, ensuring higher education institutions treated students fairly and ensuring that regulation of the higher education sector was fit for purpose.

Draft Advice

The draft advice does not cover the full range of consumer protection legislation that may apply to higher education providers. Instead, if focuses on the following main areas:

• information made available to students to enable them to make an informed decision as to the most appropriate course and education provider;  • the contents and use of terms and conditions used by some higher education providers; and • the “speed and effectiveness” of complaint handling and practices.

The draft advice is intended for publicly funded universities, further education colleges which provide higher education courses and privately funded universities and colleges (often referred to as “alternative” higher education providers).

Next Steps

The CMA is seeking views from interested parties on the draft advice. The consultation deadline for responses is Thursday 18 December 2014.

Matthew Gough, Head of Eversheds’ Consumer Law Team comments, “Given that, as a matter of law, students are to be regarded as consumers for the purposes of the UK consumer law framework, it is important that higher education providers are fully informed as to their legal obligations towards their students in the context of the UK consumer law framework.  Whilst not exhaustive, the advice seeks to summarise the key consumer rights afforded to students at undergraduate level.  However, given the complexities around the “student contract” and the uniqueness of the relationship between HE providers and their students, it will be interesting to see what amendments will be made to the advice as a consequence of the consultation.”