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Consultation on Student Contracts

on Thursday, 14 September 2017.

On 20 July, Jo Johnson announced that he will instruct the new Office for Students to consult the higher education sector on the introduction of standardised student contracts.

Whilst it is clear that the idea forms part of the government's push to promote value for money and consumer protection for students, it also seems to ignore long-held sector concerns rooted in the belief that all providers are unique, and that higher education should not be disaggregated and reduced to something measured purely in terms of resources, contact, assessment and support; important though all of these things are.

Perception of Value for Money

Tuition fees are now up to £9,250 per year in England. No institution already charging fees at the maximum rate is likely to reduce them. However, any student paying fees at this level is likely to reflect on what they are getting in exchange. It seems unthinkable that any provider of a service would resist attempts to make the scope and quality of that service clear to those consumers who wish to purchase it. And indeed, as the CMA recently confirmed, higher education institutions have not entirely avoided providing students with information about what is expected of them when delivering education services (and the student when receiving them). The issue is how and when that information is shared and whether in practice it is adequate.

Jo Johnson has acknowledged that contracts already exist in various forms in some higher education institutions, but emphasised that they are not detailed enough to be useful because students still do not know what they should expect from the educational experience. The logic is that the provision of standardised contracts which provide certainty over key aspects of that experience would help to address perceptions of poor value for money. 

The fact that the relationship between universities and their students has long been recognised as contractual does not comfort providers. The fear is not that students will suddenly realise that they have a contract with the institution at which they study, more that they will automatically try to enforce a right of legal redress (rather than attempt to resolve the situation amicably) if they are not happy with either experience or outcome. 

What Does This Mean for the Sector?

Supporters of the idea would state that this is what the sector needs; an incentive to ensure that higher fees really do produce higher standards of delivery, more transparency and increased student satisfaction. Critics would claim the opposite - that institutions charging higher fees will try to pre-empt and avoid potentially costly claims by lowering academic standards in order to keep fee paying students happy and benign. It will be interesting to see how these polarised views are reflected in the outcome of the consultation next year. 

For more information please contact Kris Robbetts in our Higher Education team on 0117 314 5427.

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