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Legal rights and coronavirus: Student consumer rights

Harriet Bass and Teresa Joseph from the consumer law team discuss the rights of higher education students in the current coronavirus lockdown.

Posted on 16 April 2020

The spread of coronavirus (also known as COVID-19) has led to an unprecedented closure of universities and colleges, with Higher Education Institutions having to make significant changes to their student services, teaching and assessments. This has been very stressful for many students, particularly for those who are in the process of studying for their finals.

In addition, prospective students are being affected as many universities have chosen to delay the start dates for some of their courses, change application deadlines for their next intake, and defer some of their 2020 offers to 2021. 

So let’s examine the impact of COVID-19 on higher education and consider the consumer rights available to students at this time. 

Higher Education and COVID-19

As of 23 March 2020, the UK Government’s advice has been to stay at home, unless you are permitted to leave for essential work or other limited purposes. Additionally, all non-essential premises such as libraries and other campus facilities have had to close. Universities have responded to this advice by transitioning from face-to-face teaching to remote learning.  

While universities aim to maintain the quality and frequency of teaching as far as possible, for some students remote working may pose significant setbacks such as a lack of internet access or IT equipment. 

For disabled students or students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, the shift to remote learning can have further disadvantages. For example, remote learning software may present access challenges for certain types of disability. 

On a broader scale, the unprecedented disruption has caused many students to feel concerned that they may not reach their full potential due to missing out on physical teaching time and access to student facilities. 

In response, some universities have implemented a “no-detriment” policy to ensure final grades are not adversely impacted by the conditions resulting from COVID-19. However, numerous universities are yet to implement this policy, which begs the question, how will they prevent students’ grades from being disadvantaged by the changes that have been introduced? 

For international students, the situation is particularly complex as they may be facing additional travel related challenges or time-zone differences, impeding their studies. 

It is clear that students are facing unprecedented challenges to their studies that vary on an individual basis. 

Student Consumer Rights

Students have already had their studies affected recently by the lecturers’ industrial strikes, and so the transition to remote learning as a result of COVID-19 has added to the impact, leaving many students feeling short-changed. 

Under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 (CRA 2015) students at Higher Education Institutions in the UK are legally classed as ‘consumers’, which means they are entitled to the same protection as any other person in the UK who has purchased an item or a service. While universities are acting under government advice by making changes to the way in which they deliver teaching and assessment, the CRA still requires that Higher Education Institutions carry out their services with “reasonable care and skill”. 

The Office for Students has recently announced substantially reduced regulatory requirements for universities and colleges during the pandemic, but has stressed that consumer protection law continues to apply. 

Universities will need to ensure that their contractual terms and conditions for students are abided by, and that they are fair and easily understood. For example, they must continue to meet ongoing conditions related to the quality of their courses and the standard of qualifications that they award. They should make all reasonable efforts to provide teaching and support for students that is broadly equivalent to normal arrangements.

Further, universities must clearly communicate to students the changes that are taking place in advance of them being put into place, the reasons for the changes, the impact the changes are likely to have, and the options available to students to avoid the changes without being adversely affected. They must ensure that their approach to making reasonable adjustments for students with a disability remain appropriate and effective. 

In addition, universities’ complaints handling processes and practices must be accessible, clear and fair to students.

Know your rights

In these extraordinary times, it is important to know what services you are contractually entitled to expect from your university or college. Higher Education Institutions should adapt the delivery of their courses as effectively as possible, to minimise any impact on your future career and financial prospects, particularly given the expense of tuition fees.