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How consumer law applies to students

As much as you may attempt to screen your course or university before submitting your application, you never truly know whether the learning experience is going to be up to standard until you’re actually enrolled and studying. If once you start on your course you feel as though something isn’t quite right, you shouldn’t feel powerless to make your voice heard. 

By accepting your place on your chosen course, you are entering into a contractual agreement with your university, whereby you are the consumer (ie a customer who is acting privately, not in the course of business) and your institution is the provider. Because of this, your university has a responsibility to meet certain standards in relation to consumer law.

There are 3 core commitments in the UK that universities must uphold:

Information provision

Your university is responsible for providing you with clear, comprehensive, and timely information about the university and your course, throughout the application, offer, and enrolment stages.

Fair and legal terms and conditions

Terms and conditions determine many of the rights and obligations of the parties to a contract: here, the student and the university. Parties usually have choice as to which terms they form a contract on. However, consumer law restricts this choice in certain ways when one of the parties to the contract is a consumer. This means that the terms and conditions of your contractual agreement with your university must be fair and should not discriminate against or disadvantage any student.

Clear complaints handling processes

Your university must ensure that their process for handling complaints is clear, accessible, and fair to all students.

What could go wrong

So, in what kind of situation might an awareness of these core responsibilities come in handy? It may be that after enrolling on your course you find that its content doesn’t match what was advertised or that the standard of teaching doesn’t meet expectations. Or, perhaps your tutors choose to strike or you feel you’ve fallen victim to an unfair disciplinary procedure.

Ultimately, you have the right to receive the education that you paid for and to be treated fairly. This means that your university should deliver the course content that they said they would, in the manner that was outlined in the prospectus, for the price that was agreed to. Your university shouldn’t make drastic or unreasonable changes to your course program, disadvantage or discriminate against you in any way, or increase your fees unreasonably. If they do any of these things, you have the right to challenge their actions under consumer law.

How to exercise your rights

If something goes wrong, your first point of contact will usually be your university - particularly if you have a dispute that you feel can be easily resolved. Oftentimes, problems arise due to a simple administrative mix-up or human error, in which case a chat with your personal tutor can be very helpful in resolving the issue. Alternatively, you can raise your dispute through your university’s internal complaints process - you’ll need to have plenty of information ready to back up your claim if you choose to do this.

If you feel your complaint hasn’t been handled effectively on an informal basis or if you’re not happy with your university’s response, you may want to reach out to an external, impartial service, such as an independent ombudsman (eg the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for England and Wales or the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman). If you choose to go this route, you will need to prove that you’ve already been through your university’s internal complaints process and be prepared to supply all the necessary evidence.

No matter how you choose to tackle your problem, you’ll need to clearly understand the premise of your dispute and have plenty of proof to support your argument. You’ll also want to familiarise yourself with your university’s terms and conditions, to understand exactly how the university has fallen short of what these terms and conditions promise. It can be helpful to seek advice from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) for a better understanding of your rights, and to deepen your understanding of the law.

The vast majority of us will only take the time to educate ourselves on the law when we’re in the face of a challenge. The truth is, the more knowledgeable you are, the more equipped you’ll be for your time at university - at worst, you’ll be prepared to handle any trials and tribulations that come your way, and at best, you’ll enjoy your student years with the peace of mind that your university is fulfilling their duties to you.


For more information, read Consumer rights. You can Ask a lawyer for assistance handling any legal issues you may have.

Francesca Ellis
Francesca Ellis
Student Support Officer

Francesca Ellis is a Student Support Officer with a passion for safeguarding the rights of higher education pupils. She has an interest in all things consumer law, and enjoys sharing her trusted knowledge with colleagues and students across the country.

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