Higher education providers face growing complaints relating to consumer protection rights

With rising student complaints, higher education providers need a deeper understanding of
the binding nature of promotional website and social media content, study recommends

Higher education providers in the UK are facing growing student complaints regarding failure to provide services as promoted online and risk penalties that may include loss of degree-awarding powers, warns a report published by Pagefreezer.

The report examines higher education providers’ responsibilities related to marketing and
consumer rights — specifically the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA’s) guidance
document, UK Higher Education Providers: Advice On Consumer Protection Law (CMA 33).

65% of higher education providers surveyed state they have received official student
complaints regarding failure to provide course content or course quality as advertised. Of
those, a further 37% state complaints had escalated to official legal matters.

The report also found higher education providers are not fully documenting the promotional
website and social media content encountered by prospective students in their research and
application process. 18% of study respondents had no ability to produce evidence of digital
promotional content. Meanwhile, only 24% claim to have full website archiving.

One prominent institution stated that it did not use social media to market to prospective
students, yet a search of their Facebook page quickly revealed content regarding the
application process, funding, and more.

“Our research indicates that many higher education providers believe information contained
in formal course packs supersedes online website and social media content, but this is not
the case,” says “Pagefreezer CRO Peter Callaghan, who sponsored the research. “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 recommends institutions keep permanent and non-editable records of website
and social media content to ensure it complies with CMA requirements; and to prepare for
regulatory audits and legal matters.

The Impact of Covid-19

With COVID-19 forcing many universities to shift all of their communications and teaching
online, student consumer rights under the CMA have become more relevant than ever, and
the report recommends institutions consider how changes to a programme or course will
reflect on the contract between the provider and the student.

The material information provided at even the earliest stages of interaction with a
prospective student must be kept accurate and up to date. Should the information no longer
accurately reflect the reality of the learning experience and require changes, a higher
education provider should, according to section 4.2 of CMA 33, obtain “the express consent
of the prospective student.”

Asked about the frequency of service issue related complaints from 2018 to 2019, the Office
of the Independent Adjudicator reported a 20% increase. This increase has continued in
2020, but as students must first follow internal complaint processes before involving the
Office of the Independent Adjudicator, it was too early for the organisation to report on
complaints arising from the pandemic.

Research Methodology

Pagefreezer submitted Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to 150 institutions in February
2020. Questions centred around how universities were complying with UK laws on course
and content promotion.

Higher education providers may obtain a copy of the research document at 

Press release distributed by Pressat on behalf of Pagefreezer Software, on Wednesday 28 October, 2020. For more information subscribe and follow https://pressat.co.uk/

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