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5 February 2015, 07:18
Students are being left open to unfair course changes because universities are making widespread use of loose terms in their contracts - some of which could be unlawful, according to a study.
Which? is calling on the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to examine what it claims is evidence that some universities use terms that breach consumer law.
Freedom of Information Act requests sent to universities across the UK found that half (51%) use terms that give them freedom to change courses, even when these changes could have been prevented, the watchdog said.
One in five universities (20%) used terms that were "unlawful" while 31% used wording that was bad practice and likely to be unlawful.
Just 5% of universities used terms that were good practice and only one - the University of York - used terms that were best practice.
But nearly four in ten universities that responded (37%) did not provide enough information to check if they can make unfair changes, suggesting students would be unlikely to work out where they stand, Which? said.
The CMA recently published draft guidance on consumer law in the higher education sector, including measures to ensure terms are transparent and fair.
Which? said it would send its findings to the CMA and is calling on it to check if universities are complying with the guidance "at the earliest possible opportunity''.
It is calling on all providers to ensure that their terms comply with the law and wants the sector to consider a standard ``consumer-friendly'' format for student contracts.
Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: "It's worrying to see such widespread use of unfair terms in university contracts.
"Students deserve to know what they can expect from a course before signing up so that they can be confident they will get what they pay for.
"With tuition fees higher than ever before, we want universities to take immediate action to give students the protection they're entitled to."
A previous Which? report in November found that nearly six in 10 (58%) students say they have experienced a change during their course such as changes to modules or the location of teaching, and 12% have seen an increase in tuition fees part-way through an academic year or between years.
More than a third (35%) thought the changes were unfair.