Competition and Markets Authority Guidance

This guidance has been created to assist colleagues in making changes to programmes following the introduction of the Competition and Markets Authority.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is a non-ministerial department that works to promote competition for the benefit of consumers, both within and outside the UK.

In March 2015, the CMA provided guidance designed to help Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) comply with their obligations under consumer protection law. The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has since undertaken extensive work to identify potential consumer protection issues in the UK HE sector and has issued advice to ensure that HEIs meet the minimum requirements for compliance with consumer protection law. These minimum standards apply to various aspects of an HEI’s dealings with students, such as information provision, complaint handling, and the requirement of fairness for terms and conditions. Additionally, the University of Birmingham has developed a Policy on Consultation with Students (PDF - 150KB), and associated guidance (PDF - 135KB), which should be consulted when making any changes that may affect students.

The below guidance provides support for making changes to programmes in light of external guidance, and also specifies the deadlines by which programmes need to be modified.

Guidance specifically relating to withdrawing or suspending a programme is provided on the programme withdrawal/suspension page.

Guidance 

The Minimum Standards

At enquiry/application stage:

  • We must provide prospective students with material information, including about the courses we offer, the structure of courses, and the fees/costs. This should be given before they make a decision about which courses and HE providers to apply to (i.e. via print materials, open day presentations and the online Coursefinder).
  • We should ensure that we draw prospective students’ attention to important and surprising rules and regulations, and make them accessible. Note that the University has taken steps to ensure that terms and conditions that apply to applications/offers are more clearly signposted from course pages.
  • The information we provide should be accurate, clear, unambiguous and timely, and should be given up front.

 At offer stage:

  • We must continue to provide important information to prospective students to inform their decisions about which offer(s) to accept.
  • When a prospective student accepts our offer, we enter into a contract with them, at which point we are expected to deliver what we ‘promised’ in any pre-application information.
  • Where any pre-contract information that we have already provided changes, e.g. relating to module choices, this should be communicated to the prospective students. In some cases, we must obtain prospective students’ express agreement to the change.

What this Means for Making Changes to Programmes

It is vital that all information on Coursefinder is kept up to date. Staff members responsible for programme information within Schools need to ensure that all information is provided to the relevant College Marketing Team so it can be published on the Coursefinder entries on the University website. During the undergraduate recruitment cycle there are specified times for key updates to Coursefinder: e.g., any changes to entry requirements should be published alongside the publication of the new print prospectus, generally over a year in advance of the point of entry. (NB Changes to entry requirements require the approval of University Recruitment, Admissions and Targets committee. Changes to UG entry requirements should normally be considered no later than the December meeting, and PG normally no later than April. Requests to change offer criteria should be evidenced with likely outcomes on recruitment).

Although there needs to be some flexibility in what is offered to students and then actually delivered, any variation needs to be reasonable and not something that could be considered to have been misrepresentative of the experience that a student will have. For example, disclaimers about optional modules on course pages and in course brochures ensure that we have flexibility in the choice that is offered, but the removal of a compulsory/core module would fundamentally change an advertised programme.

Where changes are made, certain actions should be undertaken to ensure that the details of such changes are communicated to or, when necessary, agreed to by those affected by them (through communication with prospective/current students as appropriate) or that the changes are unlikely to be considered to have a material effect on those participating.

To meet the CMA’s standards and minimise the need to communicate with prospective/current students regarding planned changes, the University has the following deadlines by which programmes need to be modified:

  • Compulsory/core modules need to be approved on a cohort basis before the beginning of the relevant application round – e.g. any changes to compulsory/core modules for students starting in September 2021 should be approved by the end of June 2020 (and please note that the necessary changes should be made for every year of their programme, i.e. year 1 in 2020/21, year 2 in 2021/22, and so on).
  • Optional modules need to be approved by academic year (not by cohort) in time for timetabling to take place – i.e. by the end of the January preceding the academic year in which they will be delivered.

This may involve submitting approval paperwork for both programmes and modules, as related programme and module level paperwork should be submitted simultaneously.

You will need to plan your curriculum development activity to ensure that deadlines are met. All changes to programmes (whether they are Minor, Major or Exceptional) require approval; guidance on the different types of programme modifications can be found here. Paperwork should be submitted in good time to allow the approval process to conclude before the relevant deadline.

It should be emphasised that it is possible to make changes after the deadlines but that the potential risks involved in doing so should be carefully considered and, where necessary, mitigated.

 

Frequently Asked Questions  

What happens if I need to make a change to a programme/module and I have missed the relevant deadline?

It is possible to make changes after the relevant deadline but if the change will contradict what prospective/current students have already been told about their programme of study, there is a potential risk of complaints, legal action, etc.  A risk-based decision needs to be made within the School, in order to determine whether or not to go ahead with the change and whether any mitigating action is required in order to make the change with no or minimal risk. In making this decision, it is important to consider to which sources of information that prospective/current students have been exposed.

Colleges and Schools are required to assess and mitigate the risks involved with making any changes to programmes/modules after these deadlines, e.g. by communicating with those affected and/or by considering the reasons for the change, as outlined in the Policy on Consultation with Students (PDF - 150KB).

Note that external audiences will be far more sympathetic to decisions that are made genuinely on the basis of academic judgement. The risk of making a change is therefore lessened where there is a solid pedagogic rationale, which can be argued (and likely to be agreed by academic peers) to be of benefit to students. External audiences are far less sympathetic (and therefore there is increased risk) where changes are made on the basis of financial reasons, attempts to manage workload, or personal preference of those delivering the activities.

What paperwork do I need to complete if making a change after the deadline?

Changes made before the start of the affected session go through the usual approval process for module or programme modifications. Changes that are taking place in session (e.g. altering a semester 2 module for 20/21 in October 2020) are classed as exceptional and so need to be approved by the University Quality Assurance Committee. This applies to module changes in addition to programme changes (your College Academic Policy Partner will be able to advise you on this). 

The module/programme modification form should include details of the communication that has taken place (including the outcome) or the communication that will take place, or a clear explanation of why it was determined that communication was not necessary/appropriate.

To which sources of information might students have had access?

Sources of information available to students include: the prospectus, Coursefinder and other marketing materials, the Programme Factsheet, the online Programme and Modules Handbook, student handbooks produced within the School/Department, module choice information provided to students, etc.  Verbal sources of information should also be considered, such as Open Day and Applicant Visit Day talks (some of which are available to students online afterwards) and/or their accompanying slides, which outline details of the programme. 

What is the ‘Programme Factsheet’?

The Programme Factsheet is a PDF document made available alongside offer letters that provides key information about the relevant programme of study and forms part of the University’s contract with offer holders.

Each Programme Factsheet contains the key summary information specified in CMA guidance including a list of compulsory modules and an indication of the broad allocation of assessment methods across the programme. The full suite of Factsheets will be hosted on our website (on the Information for Applicants page).

How important is the Programmes and Modules Handbook as a source of information for prospective/current students?

The Programme Factsheet provides offer holders with a link to the Programme and Modules Handbook (PMH), as it contains information that we are required to supply to them, so it should be assumed that some offer holders will have consulted it

The PMH includes a clear explanation of what students can expect from it (e.g. it is indicated that changes to compulsory modules will only be made after consultation, where appropriate, with registered students and offer holders affected by the proposal and that optional modules are subject to change).

It is possible that, having been introduced to it by the Programme Factsheet, students will continue to use the PMH as a source of information once they are here.

Additionally, the PMH reflects what is in Banner (the student record system), which contains the definitive record of all programmes and modules. It is therefore more than just a source of information for students.

What do I need to consider when assessing the potential risks of making a change after the deadline?

  • How significant is the change? Will it make a material difference to the experience of the students on the programme/module?
  • Are any prospective/current students likely to be unhappy about the change?
  • Would knowing about the change at an earlier stage potentially have affected a prospective student’s decision to come to Birmingham?
  • Has routinely gathered student feedback already indicated that the change would be acceptable, or even welcomed, by those affected?
  • What is the reason for the change and how sympathetic is an external audience likely to be? Is the change unavoidable, e.g. because it is reasonably outside the University’s control (e.g. an unexpected lack of funding, a key member of staff being able to teach)? Is there a solid pedagogic rationale for making the change, that can be argued (and likely to be agreed by academic peers) to be of benefit to students? Are the changes required by a Professional, Statutory, and Regulatory Body? Alternatively, is the change being made on the basis of financial reasons, attempts to manage workload, or personal preference of those delivering the activities (in which case approval is less likely)?

Do I need to communicate with prospective or current students?

Communicating with current students is considered to be good practice when making any changes to programmes/modules as they are our partners in shaping their academic experience.

Ideally you would communicate with anyone affected by the change; this is particularly important if making a change is felt to create a risk (of complaints, legal action, etc.). This includes communications with both prospective and current students as appropriate. 

Please refer to the Policy on Consultation with Students (PDF - 150KB), and the associated Guidance (PDF - 135KB), for more information. The Guidance includes examples of different types of changes and the level of consultation required.

If you do not think communication with those affected is necessary/appropriate, you must have a solid justification for this, e.g. be able to say that making the change is very low risk and the reasons why.

When and how should I communicate with prospective/current students?

The timing of the communication with prospective/current students in relation to the timing of the approval process is part of the overall risk-based decision that must be made.

In some cases, it may be appropriate to communicate with prospective/current students before the approval process has concluded. For instance, where the change is unavoidable or where you have already consulted the College’s approving body and it has indicated that it is likely to grant approval if appropriate communication with prospective/current students takes place.

In other cases, it may be more appropriate to wait until formal approval for the change has been secured before communicating with prospective/current students. For example, where there is uncertainty regarding whether or not the change will be approved.

For communications to prospective students/applicants, discuss this with Marketing and Communications and the Admissions team. Communications to current students should be organised by the School. Your College Academic Policy Partner will also be able to advise you.

When should I contact Marketing?

Minor programme changes

As minor modifications are largely of an administrative or operational nature, in many cases the changes will not affect prospective students (or relate to information used to promote the programme), so your College Marketing Team do not need to be consulted.  If, however, these changes relate to the addition or removal of optional modules, please advise Marketing once the changes have been approved so that any marketing materials can be updated accordingly; where new modules are introduced this could also provide an opportunity to initiate positive communications with the prospective students as a conversion activity.

Major/exceptional programme changes

Please be aware that your College Marketing Team is not able to publicise programme changes until they have been formally approved, as it is important that the approved version of a programme is promoted at all times. However, it is helpful if you can advise Marketing colleagues when significant changes are in progress so that they plan accordingly – for example, to ensure that updates to print materials are scheduled at appropriate times. 

Some changes may also require you to communicate with prospective students. If you are in a position where you need to communicate with prospective students, you should work with your College Marketing Team to develop the communication, which can be sent using the Hobsons CRM system (contact your College Marketing Team for further information).

Programme withdrawals

These should be processed in time for Marketing to reflect the withdrawal in the print and online prospectuses. In the case of undergraduate programmes, Admissions will also be able to ensure that the withdrawal is reflected on the UCAS website.

Does this apply equally to undergraduate and postgraduate courses?

The CMA and Office of Fair Trading have focused on undergraduate programmes, but the University is applying the same principles to postgraduate programmes (although students on postgraduate programmes do not receive a Programme Factsheet).

What is the role of Legal Services?

If it is not considered possible to make a risk-based decision within the College (e.g. because it is a particularly complex or high risk issue) then either your College Academic Policy Partner or College Marketing Team will contact Legal Services on your behalf.

 

Colleges

Professional Services