Press release

CMA secures assurances from UCL on student debt policy

UCL will ensure that students are not prevented from graduating or re-enrolling because of non-academic debts, following action by the CMA.

Students in a lecture

University College London (UCL) is now revising its terms and conditions and processes to ensure that students will not be subject to academic sanctions - such as being stopped from graduating or re-enrolling onto courses - because of non-tuition fee debts, such as rent arrears.

This will help to ensure that UCL is compliant with its own stated policy and also with the advice on consumer law issued to higher education providers by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in March 2015.

Whilst involved in a dispute with a number of its students who went on rent strike in protest about their accommodation, UCL sent letters threatening to impose academic sanctions if rent remained outstanding. After it received information from Which? and the UCL student union, the CMA raised its concerns with UCL that it was likely to have breached consumer law.

UCL assured the CMA that the letters had been sent in error and, to address the CMA’s concerns, it has given assurances to the CMA that it will:

  • not threaten or apply academic sanctions on its students because they have a debt for UCL accommodation

  • not threaten or apply academic sanctions because they owe other non-tuition fee debts to the university

  • revise its contract terms and practices in accordance with the above assurances

Nisha Arora, CMA Senior Director, said:

Students shouldn’t be prevented from graduating or re-enrolling because they owe money for accommodation or other non-academic services. We welcome UCL’s co-operation and commitment to complying with consumer law, which will be to the benefit of its students.

Compliance with consumer protection law is an important way to ensure that students have the right information to make informed decisions about what and where to study and are treated fairly when they get there.

In order to monitor compliance with the advice we published earlier this year, and to ensure that students are being treated fairly, the CMA has started a review of compliance in the sector. Providers that breach consumer law risk enforcement action.

We are grateful for the assistance we received from Which? and the UCL student union with this case.

In March 2015 the CMA published advice to the sector about how to comply with consumer law and also wrote to universities advising them to:

  • give students the clear, accurate and timely information they need so they can make an informed decision about what and where to study

  • ensure that their terms and conditions are fair, for example, so they cannot make surprising changes to the course or costs

Students were also provided with an at-a-glance guide to their consumer rights.

To report a possible breach of consumer law by a higher education provider, please see the CMA’s guidance for undergraduate students.

Notes for editors

  1. The CMA is the UK’s primary competition and consumer authority. It is an independent non-ministerial government department with responsibility for carrying out investigations into mergers, markets and the regulated industries and enforcing competition and consumer law. From 1 April 2014 it took over the functions of the Competition Commission and the competition and certain consumer functions of the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), as amended by the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013.

  2. The CMA’s advice to the sector cited the compliance work, previously undertaken by the OFT, in February 2014, on use of academic sanctions for non-tuition fee debts. The key pieces of consumer protection legislation considered in the CMA’s advice were the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 (the UTCCRs), the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (CPRs) and the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013. Part 2 of the Consumer Rights Act 2015 replaces the UTCCRs, it applies to contracts entered into, and relevant notices issued, on or after 1 October 2015.

  3. The assurances were given by UCL following a letter from the CMA, which raised its concerns that UCL was using a term in its contract with students that allowed it to apply academic sanctions for non-tuition fee debts, in a blanket fashion and regardless of the circumstances and also requested information from UCL, on a voluntarily basis. The latter was to assist the CMA to determine what further action, if any, needed to be taken.

  4. UCL informed the CMA that it was not its policy to apply academic sanctions for non-tuition debts and had established a taskforce to review the entire content of the UCL website to ensure that the information available is accurate and up to date, including information about how debts will be recovered as well as ensuring that processes reflect those policies.

  5. For more information on the CMA see our homepage or follow us on Twitter @CMAgovuk, Flickr and LinkedIn.

  6. Enquiries should be directed to Simon Belgard (simon.belgard@cma.gsi.gov.uk, 020 3738 6472).

Published 13 November 2015