In response to these developments, the University has set up the Consumer Protection Project to enhance our compliance with the new law. We talk to Co-Chairs of the University Consumer Protection Project Board, Professor Mark French, Associate Dean (Education) for Physical Sciences and Engineering and Claire Atkins, Academic Registrar.
What’s the background to the Consumer Protection Project?
Mark: The project was set up a year ago to enhance our compliance with the revised consumer protection legislation. It’s about making sure that what we say about our education offering is factual and accurate.
Why is this so important?
Claire: Consumer Protection Law is important today because a greater proportion of higher education providers’ funding is coming directly from students, particularly in England. It’s about protecting the rights of students because, for most of them, deciding what and where to study will be a major ‘one-off’ decision. But it’s also about good practice.
What does consumer law cover?
Mark: Consumer law sets out minimum standards that apply to various aspects of a higher education provider’s dealings with applicants and students. It helps ensure students get the information they need to make informed choices about what and where to study; it also means students must be treated fairly during their studies.
Higher education providers who do not meet their obligations may be in breach of consumer law and risk enforcement action; also students or applicants could take independent legal action if they feel they have been mis-sold something.
What does it mean for staff at Southampton?
Claire: It means we need to provide clear and accurate information to students that will help them to make decisions. For applicants, material information (information needed to make an informed decision) must be easily accessible before the individual applies. This means that if particular changes are made after they have been communicated, we must communicate them again. For example, if you are advising students on accommodation costs, you can’t start off telling them the cost is £50 a week and then change the price later without communicating this to the students.
It also relates to what we tell students about our programmes – in terms of entry requirements, core modules, contact hours, overall method of assessment, as well as information on total course costs, including tuition fees and other extra costs.
Which members of staff does this apply to?
Mark: It applies to anyone giving information to applicants and students, and not just staff. It also includes our student ambassadors, for example. Everyone who gives information to inform current or prospective students needs to make sure this information is accurate, complete, clear, unambiguous, up front, timely and accessible. This could be on the website, in prospectuses or in person. It applies to all formats – written, visual and spoken.
What changes have already happened at Southampton?
Claire: We have done a lot of work already, including updating web pages, creating new terms and conditions, amending offer letter templates, updating programme specifications and providing briefings.
How is the project being managed?
Mark: The Education Strategy Executive Group (ESEG) is the governing body for the project. The University Consumer Protection Project Board, co-chaired by myself and Claire, reports to ESEG and is providing leadership. There is a core project team responsible for day-to-day delivery.
For more information, please visit the Consumer Protection Project SharePoint site.