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Complying with Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) guidance

How to meet the minimum requirements of consumer protection law when providing course information and how we'll meet CMA expectations.

Going to University represents a significant financial commitment. Students therefore have rights as consumers and are protected by consumer protection law.

In 2015, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published advice for universities on consumer protection law. This advice was revised and reissued in May 2023. The CMA’s advice sets out the minimum requirements for compliance with consumer protection law. However, it is not a substitute for the law itself. It is a condition of our registration with the Office for Students (OfS) that we comply.

To read the guidance, visit: CMA Consumer law advice for higher education providers.

The CMA guidance covers four key areas:

  • an overview of legislation
  • information provision for applicants and students
  • terms and conditions
  • complaints

This guidance focuses on the provision of course information and how the University seeks to comply with the CMA’s expectations.

Although the focus of the CMA’s guidance is on undergraduate, the OfS has made it clear that consumer law applies equally to undergraduate and postgraduate courses (taught and research).

Information provision

The CMA requires universities to provide prospective and current students with course information that is clear, accurate and up to date.

The University must make available to prospective students a minimum level of information (“material information”) at each stage of our dealing with them, including at the research and application, offer and enrolment stages, and during their studies. The level of information is designed to ensure that applicants are able to make an informed decision about their choice of university and course.

Material information must include as a minimum:

  • award
  • course location
  • course duration
  • core units and likely options
  • overall approach to assessment
  • overall approach to learning and teaching including the mode of delivery (face to face or online or blended) and the balance of contact time and independent learning
  • accreditation (where applicable)
  • fees and additional costs

Material information on the course is collected when we approve a new course or when changes are made. This is done through the course specification, the format of which is intended to ensure that we provide sufficient information to meet CMA expectations but not so much that we risk misleading students.

The text used in the course specification is now also used in the online prospectus ensuring that there is no ambiguity about the information provided to prospective or current students. This is why marketing teams must be involved in drafting the course specification and any changes to it.

The CMA expects us to provide information to applicants/students in a “durable format”. We do this by sending them a course specification (specific to their cohort) at the point of making an offer and again when enrolling on the course. The course specification forms part of our contract with our students. Therefore, if we need to make a substantive change to it, we must consult all affected students. In certain circumstances we may need to seek their consent to the change.

All communications – verbal or written - to prospective or current students must comply with CMA expectations. Information communicated about courses must align with approved information. The course approval/change process is now aligned with production of the prospectus which will help with compliance. However, there are many other publications and opportunities for communicating information about the student experience at Bath. Anyone involved in producing or communicating information about the student experience, has a responsibility to follow CMA guidelines. The Head of Department is ultimately accountable for the accuracy of information to students and applicants.

Misleading actions

Either deliberately or inadvertently providing misleading information would be a breach of consumer protection legislation.

This would include:

  • giving a misleading impression at an Open Day that a particular unit or resource would be available to all students when this is not the case
  • giving a misleading impression about the location of a course
  • suggesting a course provides a particular qualification by a professional body when in fact further study (and possibly cost) would be required to obtain the award

Course approvals and changes

Timing is key in meeting CMA expectations which is why we have specific deadlines for the approval of new course approvals and course changes. These are set out in: - QA3 Approval of New Programmes of Study and - QA4 Amendments to Programmes of Study and Units and Approval of New Units.

We must have sufficient approved and accurate information to advertise as students will be making comparisons between institutions. We should not normally make changes to a course late in the applicant cycle as applicants will be tied into an offer. If we do make changes to the course specification, we should consult on the change and reissue the information. It may be necessary to seek consent from affected students to make a change as we may be changing the basis on which they accepted an offer of a place at the University i.e. the University-student contract.

Creating a single source of truth for information in SAMIS and making changes through Curriculum Planner will ensure that marketing materials are updated automatically when a change to the course gets approved. Failure to provide the material information or failure to provide clarity on the material information would be a breach of consumer protection legislation. At the same time, providing too much information to students, that we cannot guarantee into the future, may also mean that we fail to meet students’ expectations.

The CMA is mindful of the fact that universities are providing an educational service which must stay up to date. Therefore, some change may be necessary and very much in the interest of our students. However, the basis on which we do this must be fair, with a clear rationale and subject to effective consultation.

Terms and conditions

The basis on which students take up an offer is set out in the University’s Terms and Conditions. The CMA sets its expectations for making terms and conditions fair and transparent:

  • documentation should be accessible in relation to format and location
  • the University cannot seek to limit its liability if for instance there is industrial action or a public health emergency
  • fees should be clear and there should be no hidden costs
  • rights to intellectual property should be clear
  • rules and regulations should be accessible
  • students should be alerted to anything that they may find surprising in the way the University works or a course is delivered

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