Sussex is set to raise tuition fees for all continuing home and EU undergraduate students as well as new students in 2017/18. However, to students without a thorough understanding of higher education law, the mechanism allowing them to do so is incredibly opaque. Taking an interview with Vice-Chancellor Adam Tickell and several clarifications from the university until a clearer and more comprehensive explanation was given.
Last week The Badger published an investigation into the contracts between the university and its students, and how these might allow fees to rise for returning students.
The Badger had received contradictory information from the university that the fee rise is based on a ministerial order, or through the “enhanced widening participation proposals” put forth by the Office For Fair Access (OFFA). Meanwhile, the university website states: “these fees are set by the university but subject to government confirmation and satisfying the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)”.
The VC was asked by The Badger if it was the TEF allowing the university to raise tuition fees, he said: “It’s complicated. This year no, other than through a ministerial order this year that allows universities to raise fees next year, if their regulations allow them”.
The Badger contacted the Student Finance England Practitioner’s Line, whose role is to provide “detailed regulatory advice” intended “for those working in the education sector”. They stated that TEF was the only way universities could raise fees, depending on the ranking they achieve.
This fits with a university spokesperson’s statement that tuition fees in 2017/18 are: “not linked to a TEF rating (e.g. bronze, silver or gold) but instead a meets expectations ranking, and that the: “TEF rating will determine any fee rises in 2018/19.”
Notwithstanding, it contradicts the VC, who said that the mechanism was in fact a ministerial order since TEF is “not (legislative) from the next academic year; it’s the year afterwards.
“The way in which the original fees regime was crafted, it did allow ministers, from day one, to allow universities to raise fees in-line with inflation, in this case.”
The current fees regime authorised by the Higher Education Act 2004 does allow for the universities minister to raise fees in line with inflation. However, consumer protection law works to ensure that such changes are clear and students are duly notified. Any lack of clarity could see a university fall foul of consumer protection guidelines.
The Consumer Markets Authority (CMA) has entered into undertakings with Birkbeck and Bucks New universities about unfair terms. Any legal clarification on Sussex’s terms and conditions would be the competence of the CMA. The VC stated the university has “been in touch with the CMA and the CMA are comfortable about the approach we are taking”. The Badger also examined the university’s terms and conditions. The VC had suggested that: “the story in The Badger was wrong about terms and conditions. Our terms and conditions are legally compliant, the story was wrong about terms and conditions. Our terms and conditions are legally compliant, the story had suggested that they’re not, which is inaccurate”.
However, a Department for Education “TEF fact sheet” states: “where a provider’s tuition fees increase, such as following an increase in its TEF level, this should only affect existing students paying tuition fees if the provider has notified them whether fees in future years will increase and by how much, before they signed their course agreement”.
The Badger noted how the university was not up-front in raising its fees. While the 2017/18 document is quite clear about the potential for a rise in fees, the prior terms do not specify by how much fees will increase. Therefore The Badger stands by its claim that these terms were not included.
The Badger investigation also revealed confusion over the 2016/17 terms and conditions. These were changed, with one set removed from Sussex’s website. The original document had a term that stated: “we may routinely increase course fees from year to year, and review and change such course fees without notice”. This was taken out and replaced with a term linking to a webpage; this is currently only accessible through an internet archive. This page states: “note that fees increase on an annual basis”. Neither of these fit the criteria set out by the TEF factsheet above.
The VC had not seen these documents, they were prepared under the former VC Michael Farthing, though said he had, “been assured they are compliant”. He further noted: “if they are compliant then there isn’t a problem. If they aren’t compliant then we’ll have to re-think our position then, that’s obvious”.