A year long investigation by The Badger into the way the University increased fees for continuing students over 2017/18 has left management failing to release any information showing it is compliant with the law.
This academic year fees rose for all students to £9250. The point of contention raised with the University has been over the extra £250, an increase in-line with inflation, forced upon continuing students, i.e. those who started prior to 2017.
The investigation, headed by the author, has allowed for a deep sectoral analysis of the university fee system. Many universities are explicit in following the rules laid out by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).
The recently formed Office for Students quite clearly states that universities looking to increase fees in-line with inflation “must include a clear, accessible statement regarding this”.
While the CMA has taken enforcement action against Buckingham University, and stopped it from enforcing any term that would raise fees other than where “the fee increase is in line with inflation, as calculated in accordance with RPI or another independent and verifiable index”, notified to a student before the contract commences.
Sussex’s terms and conditions note that fees would rise “in line with the maximum permitted by the UK Government.” Which doesn’t include the mention of inflation that the two regulators say is needed for them to be compliant with the law.
Our analysis of university fee regimes against regulatory benchmarks places Sussex as one of the worst universities in England for providing the correct information on fee rises to students.
The Badger approached the University and asked it to provide: “confirmation on whether the way in which it raised fees, as well as including the information provided to students,” was complaint with consumer protection law and regulations – and whether it could make this information public. The University was further asked to give a reason why it wouldn’t release this information if it chose not to.
In response, a University of Sussex spokesperson said: “The University believes its policy on communicating fees complies with all regulations in place.”
In a follow up email the University was asked: “does the University have any proof beyond this statement that it is compliant?” A spokesperson replied: “by the very nature of complying with regulations the University fully upholds consumer protection law and regularly seeks legal advice in this area.”
Yet, the University has previously made mistakes in this area. When, in 2014, it was forced to return an incorrect fee rise to international students, it was found not to be complying with its own guidelines.
While in a 2015 survey on higher education Which? noted Sussex as having bad practice when it came to its implementation of consumer protection law. This was before the CMA made clear what it expected of universities in 2016. The University failed to update its terms and conditions in this area until 2017, the year the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) came in.
The Badger first ran a story on this issue in February 2017. This was followed up by an interview with the Vice Chancellor, Adam Tickell, and the then Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Teaching and Learning, Professor Clare Mackie and Academic Registrar Sharon Jones – both of whom have since left the university. Given this, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the University to hold such information as a matter of good governance since it has previously been broached with senior management.
This raises the questions as to if the University holds this information, or whether any advice it has received has shown it not to be compliant.
During the UCU national demo held on campus, an event organised by students to show solidarity with striking staff, whilst also highlighting the wider problems of the marketisation in higher education, one student, who wanted to remain anonymous, said of fees: “I think it’s clear that the sector has a systemic problem with fees, and the folks who stand to be hurt the most by the resultant uncertainty are students.”
The Student’s Union was approached for comment, but due to time constraints and with the disruption on campus have been unable to comment.