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Quick guide: student rights on your university course

Feel you’re being treated unfairly by your university? Learn what your student rights are when it comes to course changes, cancelled lectures and making a complaint – as well as your responsibilities.

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Your rights as a student

Considering the price-tag of going to university you want to be certain you’re getting what you signed up for when you decided to go to that institution. 

This means you're agreeing to the terms and conditions they’ve set out, either in how they’ve described themselves or your course (eg on their website, in their prospectus), or in the student contract you signed when enrolling. 

Don’t be confused or intimidated by the lustre of ‘going to university’ or the institution itself. You have certain rights as a student, just as you do when signing up for or purchasing a product or service.

Each university and college will differ, but it's reasonable to expect the following in return:
  • You get what you're paying for: when signing up for a course, you should receive the degree you were expecting without any unexpected changes in costs. That includes changes to course fees or the addition of compulsory 'extras' that you weren't told about upfront, such as field work costs.
  • The course you're on is what you signed up for: the course structure, content, teaching and qualification award shouldn't significantly change from the course you originally applied to without good grounds.
  • There's a formal process to complain: if you're not happy, your university should provide you with access to a standard complaints procedure including full, clear information about this. We go into more detail below about how to make a complaint.

Furthermore, universities registered with the Office for Students (OfS) must have a student protection plan in place read more about this below.

Your responsibilities as a student

As a student, you've also got responsibilities in return. This includes regularly attending scheduled teaching, submitting work on time and doing the required reading, paying your fees, taking and passing exams, or not exceeding a certain number of hours in a part-time job.

In extreme cases, you could be excluded from your university if you don't meet its minimum expectations.

What to check before beginning your course

While some changes to your course can't be predicted, it's crucial that you thoroughly research your course upfront before applying, to avoid unnecessary surprises. The key moments to check any terms and conditions carefully or clarify something, are...: 
  • researching a course or institution when applying
  • visiting at an open day
  • speaking to your university via phone or email
  • signing your student contact at enrolment

Not sure what you should be asking or looking out for? Below are a few important details to clue up on, clarify and confirm (some of which you can find on a course's profile here on The Uni Guide right now  search for a course and see):
  • Location: many universities have multiple campuses, so check where teaching for your course will be based and that it suits where you’re planning to live. 
  • Timetable: you won’t find out when your lectures will be until you get to uni and start to select your preferred modules. However, broad information like the number of hours you’ll spend in lectures and seminars should be available upfront. If you're a part-time student (or on a course with a lot of part-time students), expect hours to be designed to fit around students with work and families to juggle (ie evenings and weekend lectures).
  • Modules: course content can change from year-to-year, so don't be surprised if the academic programme isn't exactly the same as what the prospectus said. But if it’s substantially changed, you do have the right to complain.
  • Well-known lecturers: if part of the appeal of a course is a well-known academic or famous face being part of that university, check whether that person will actually be teaching any of the modules you're interested in. They may not have a teaching timetable at all (and if they do, it may not be on an undergrad course).
  • Course accreditation: studying a course that's been accredited by a relevant body could give you a pivotal headstart when it comes to getting a job in your chosen industry, especially if there is a professional qualification in the field you plan to work in. Check this before you apply.
  • Extra costs: your tuition fees won’t cover all the costs of your course. You’ll need to factor in extras, such as books and course-specific equipment, from art materials to medical kit, depending on what you’re studying. Find out what’s compulsory or essential (and what you can borrow or find online for free), along with an estimate of how much these will cost.  

When you receive your offer (at the latest), universities must provide you with 'pre-contract' information such as your right to cancel if you change your mind, together with up-to-date course information and costs – these may have changed since you originally applied.

Your university should provide you with a copy of your student contract outlining their terms and conditions, which you agree to as an enrolled student. Warning, this can be quite long and dense with a lot of jargon. Your student contract will cover a whole array of topics including their official complaints and appeals procedure, course changes that might occur, data protection and much more. 

This should be available on their website too. We recommend you keep any copies provided to you and file them away safely; this way you have an official record of what’s been promised to you.


What to do if your course changes

University courses routinely change from year to year for all sorts of reasons. Changes are usually minor and the reasons straightforward – for example, changes in staff, a refresh of modules or course content, perhaps a new and exciting area of study being introduced. These will usually be covered in your student contract.

But sometimes changes can be significant, leading to a detrimental impact on your overall experience. If so, it may constitute a breach of your rights and you may have grounds to complain to your university.

It's a good idea to ask your uni or college under what circumstances it will change an aspect of a course, and what the process is for informing you about this.

What to do if your course, campus or university closes

The Office for Students (OfS), the Higher Education regulator, requires all universities that register with them to have a student protection plan in place. Over 180 providers have registered with the OfS as of Nov 2018 with others still going through the process – see the full Register on the OfS website.

A university's student protection plan outlines what will happen in the unlikely event that a course, campus or the university itself closes, and what steps they’ll take to ensure you can complete your course (eg assist you in transferring to another institution to continue) or otherwise compensate you. This will vary from university to university. 

This plan must be approved by the OfS, while universities also have to prove to them they are financially sustainable (ie they aren’t at risk of closing down due to financial reasons). 

Like a student contract, this should be easily accessible (on your university’s website). In the unlikely scenario that your university, campus or course closes – or you have reason to believe it will – you should refer to your university’s student protection plan.

Making a complaint about your university or course

If you feel there has been a substantial change to your course or you are being treated unfairly, this is what you can do:

1. Check your student contract: see what you have signed up to, including what provisions your university have set out in regards to changes or the circumstances of your complaint. 

2. Think about what you were told beforehand: this might be in materials outlining the course or correspondences you’ve had with staff so far. Emails or something in writing are preferable.

3. Go through your university’s full complaints procedure: this will be set out in your student contract or available on your university’s website. It will outline who you need to contact, what information and documents to provide, next steps etc. 

In your complaint, you’ll need to outline why you think there has been a breach of your student contract or what was promised to you, how this has affected you and what outcome you’re seeking (eg financial compensation, an examination resit). 

4) Escalate your complaint: once you’ve progressed through your university’s full procedure, they should give you a Completion of Procedures Letter detailing their findings and outcome. You can complain about their decision (as set out below) but your university will not consider your complaint once you’ve received this letter. 

If you still aren’t satisfied you can take your complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) if you’re studying in England or Wales (or the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman if you’re studying in Scotland). The OIA is an independent regulator who can look into individual complaints made about higher education providers.

Leaving or changing your university or course

Your rights to change or withdraw from your course, or leave the university, will also be outlined in your student contract.

Before you do this, think through this decision carefully. Talk to your university (your professor, the course leader, department head or student services) about why you want to switch, as there could be an alternative solution, depending on the issue eg switching (non-compulsory) modules, changing course, commuting to class from home etc.

Watch out for any financial implications to this too. For instance, the student finance you’re entitled to might change if you switch from full-time to part-time; or you may have to pay back finance you’ve already received if you leave your course altogether. 

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