How the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) came to influence UK university website content
With the financial reforms of the past decade in UK higher education, students (and their parents/advisors) should be able to find clear and accurate information on university websites to help make informed choices.
While taking some of the gloss off marketing messages, it is important that consumer rights, complaints and similar information is also readily accessible online.
Recent work by the Competition and Markets Authority has given UK higher education institutions a nudge in the right direction, while giving web teams a few content-related headaches.
Here’s why …
Higher Education Competition Concerns
The story starts in October 2013 with the pre-cursor to the CMA, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) starting a project to understand if higher education institutions were able to compete effectively.
The OFT wanted to know if effective competition also included responding to increased student expectations and whether students were able to make well-informed choices.
The initial focus was on institutions in England, but the CMA’s subsequent guidance applies to institutions throughout the United Kingdom.
Six months of study produced a report highlighting two sets of concerns. The first set were about over-complex higher education sector regulation and student access to complaints processes.
Undergraduate Students' Consumer Rights
The second set of concerns ultimately go directly to key higher education website content.
The OFT worried that undergraduate students may not have access to important course or programme information that would help them choose the most appropriate courses, programmes or institutions: a competition issue.
Allied to that concern, the OFT was troubled that undergraduate students’ consumer protection rights might be breached if they couldn’t see all the relevant information about a course or if information about a course changed after having enrolled.
In 2014 the OFT closed up shop handing some of its responsibilities to the Competition and Markets Authority with recommendations that the CMA clarify how course information disclosure practices affect students and what responsibilities higher education institutions had under consumer protection law.
The CMA embarked on a three-stage process. It held a round of consultations with higher education providers about existing practices and policies. Then it took the consultation results and produced written advice to students and higher education institutions on consumer law. Finally, the CMA reviewed the HE sector’s compliance with consumer rights legislation. The latter produced two cases in which institutions needed to take corrective action: University of East Anglia and University of Glasgow.
University Website Content Impacts
Let’s start with the CMA’s general guidance to higher education providers, as providers build university websites and are responsible for their content.
The CMA had three pieces of advice for universities and colleges [quoting directly]:
- give students the clear, accurate and timely information that 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
- ensure that their complaint handling processes are accessible, clear and fair
Item one seems self-evident. However, a combination of differing views about what constitutes ‘clear’ website writing, decentralised content creation and ill-defined authority for content updates can make complying consistently with the CMA’s advice difficult.
Maintaining clear, accurate and timely website information is more likely when web governance is in place to ensure clarity about decision making responsibilities and the types of decisions that will need to be made.
In using websites to present terms and conditions it may prove necessary to resist three impulses. Institutions may default to quasi-legal wording for T&Cs rather than plain English and compound matters by making PDFs the medium of presentation. As links rather than pages access PDFs the terms and conditions may become unnecessarily difficult to find.
The CMA’s final point about complaints raises two further issues. How prominently on higher education websites should information about making complaints be made: in the footer? Accessible via search? Secondly, the CMA has also published consumer rights guidance for students - should institutions post that document on-line or should students be left to find it on the CMA website or elsewhere?
Content Management Implications
Contrary to some discussions we’ve had about “The CMA”, there are no new regulations or legislation with a blanket effect on website content. Nor is there a CMA-inspired general requirement to archive entire websites.
However, marketing, communications and web support teams should be thinking about their approaches to the following issues:
- Clear information suggests using plain-English, but institutional instincts may tend towards ‘legalese”. How do you enforce the former rather than the latter?
- Higher education institutions like PDF documents, undergraduates prefer web pages. How do you enforce the latter rather than the former?
- How will version control (of PDFs or web pages) be enforced so no ‘surprising’ changes slip through?
- Complaints handling will happen off-line, but information about the process will be on-line. Again, undergraduates prefer web pages. Institutions like PDFs. How do you enforce the former rather than the latter?
The CMA’s appropriate focus on presenting key undergraduate decision-making information should prompt institutions to tighten up content management processes and implement the full versioning capabilities of their content management systems.