What the Consumer Market Authority means for content people in higher education

What the Consumer Market Authority means for content people in higher education

7 minute read

What the Consumer Market Authority means for content people in higher education

7 minute read

What the Consumer Market Authority means for content people in higher education

Paige Toomes

Copywriter and Digital Marketer

Universities need to be compliant with consumer market authority to protect students, their brand and their reputation.

For UK higher ed institutions, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) needs to be understood and adhered to. Schools and colleges should consider the CMA guidance (we’ll explain what this is later in this article) and assess their compliance, ensuring everyone is aware, including:

  • student recruitment
  • admissions
  • communications and PR
  • marketing
  • university management and administration,
  • social media and community management
  • content creators

Students as consumers is not new, but it is becoming more important  

The idea of students as consumers started when fees were introduced. But the question ‘are students learners or consumers?’ is often one of fierce debate, and higher ed institutions must strike a balance. Interestingly though, a 2017 survey found that 47% of students consider themselves to be consumers, and the rest do not.

Yet with digital transformation and COVID-19, the world has changed, and with it so have student-institution relationships. While there are some positive changes to come out of the pandemic, the disruption of the coronavirus and transition to remote learning means many students are left feeling abandoned, and concerned that they won’t reach their full potential due to missing out on physical teaching time and access to student facilities. And colleges and universities are now having to work hard under pressure to ensure they deliver an excellent online experience.

So what does the consumer market authority mean for content people in higher education? What should teams keep in mind when creating content to keep it compliant? In this article we’ll cover the basics of the legislation and advice given by authorities, and then give tips on how to make sure your content is compliant and consumer-friendly.

Consumer market authority legislation: a brief overview

The Competition and Markets Authority became fully operational in 2014, and sets out consumer rights, which now apply to students. Documents and guidance on consumer protection from the CMA for higher education institutions were published in March 2015, which details obligations under consumer protection law. There are two key documents amongst others on the government website:

We’ll summarise the CMA in the next sections. Also, formed in 2018 is the new Office for Students (OfS), an independent regulator for the higher education sector in England. They cover a range of areas to protect students, including consumer rights. The Office for Students has recently announced substantially reduced regulatory requirements for universities and colleges during the pandemic, but has stressed that consumer protection law does still apply.

Broad areas for compliance in the Competitions and Markets Authority

In the CMA, consumer protection law applies at three main stages of interaction between an HE provider and prospective student:

  • Stage 1: research and application stage. When the prospective student considers options for what and where to study, and then makes an application.
  • Stage 2: offer stage. When the prospective student decides whether to accept an offer of a place with an HE provider.
  • Stage 3: enrolment stage. When the student enrols with the HE provider.

Universities and colleges must make sure students can access the information they need to make informed decisions and the best choice for them in the pre- contractual stage (before their offer is made) and post-contractual (once their offer is made). The CMA is there to ensure students are treated fairly throughout their journey in HE.

Here are the broad areas for compliance to consider:

  • Information provision. Providing up front, clear, accurate, comprehensive, unambiguous and timely information to prospective and current students.
  • Terms and conditions. Ensuring terms and conditions that apply to students are fair, and balanced. HE providers should not rely on terms that could disadvantage students.
  • Complaint handling processes and practices. Making sure complaint handling processes and practices are accessible, clear and fair to students.

We’ll explain later in this article how to ensure your content is clear, transparent, in plain language, and that terms and conditions, policies and procedures are laid out in a way that is easily understandable for students.

Tips for making content consumer-friendly

We’ve established that making sure content provides for students and meets their needs is important. But what do students think about universities? There is a particularly interesting report by Universities UK and ComRes on what students want from universities. The report reviews student attitudes to, and perspectives on, their relationship with their university in the context of increased financial contribution, market competition and consumer rights. Key findings were:

  • 79% value the relationship they have with their university
  • 87% say their university treats its students fairly
  • 80% said that personalised advice and support are among the top three things they want from their relationship with their university
  • 62% say the university care about their best interest, and this is compared with only 20% for their bank or building society

What the report found overall was that students have a high level of trust and personal relationships with institutions, compared to other sectors, and that the success and satisfaction of students is based on trust in the educational mission of their university. Under the CMA, this needs to be communicated through content. Here are five tips for making your content consumer-friendly:

1. Getting website content up to scratch

It’s important to get website content up to scratch with COVID-19 and digital transformation, for 2020 and beyond. Your website is one of the first places students go. Research on digital admissions by mStoner found that 92% of student respondents said university websites are more important than social media posts.

You need to make sure that all of the content on your website is organised, with strong information architecture so students can easily navigate and find the information they need. Ultimately you need to give a great user experience. Think about things like:

2. Thinking about pre-university students

As we’ve discussed, pre-university students have consumer rights too. With the coronavirus pandemic, there are a lot of changes to the way students are applying for universities, and also to their future courses. Our friends at Pickle Jar Communications, a consultancy providing digital strategy and support for higher ed have just done some really interesting research on A-level student perspectives and mindsets.

Their Head of Research and Insight Robert Perry has presented a webinar with us, sharing the results of the report. They found that while some students are happy to work remotely, understandably, the pandemic has caused a lot of anxieties and has put many students off university completely for the next year. Institutions must work hard with course content, marketing and communications to restore faith in pre-university students. They must hear and address student concerns, show humanity and tap into conversations happening.

3. Programme and course information

This is a really big part of the CMA guidance. Programme and course information needs to be upfront, up-to-date, accurate, and include full costs of programmes. Changes in courses and innovation happens, and students understand this, but if there are any programme changes then these need to be communicated clearly. Universities are no longer allowed to modify courses without consulting or advising current and prospective students in advance, and changes must be communicated in advance. Some universities have put out advice for this, like The University of Sheffield.

Course content and delivery is part of a student’s pre-contractual terms and becomes the contract terms once an offer has been accepted. Therefore universities also need to think about students in the pre-contractual stage, and plan for content and module changes much earlier than before to ensure course descriptions reflect these.

4. Writers should serve readers, not the other way around

Writers need to write for their reader. They need to understand consumer pain points and point of view to foster a good relationship through content, and then create content to help them reach their goal or solve their problem. Content needs to be easy for readers to understand. It shouldn’t make the reader work hard. Online, we find it harder to read content, so we skim and scan. Universities and colleges need to break content up logically, using headings and bullet points where you can to make it easier to digest. Use social listening to gain audience insights on social media, then create articles and meaningful content for students on your website and blog.

5. Writing non-academic and non-marketing content in plain language

Often, terms in providers’ complaints processes could act as a barrier to students raising or pursuing a complaint. Under the CMA, higher ed institutions need to make it simple for students to raise an issue if they have one. We’ve just recently hosted a webinar, presented by Deborah Bosely, content expert and founder of the Plain Language Group on writing policies, procedures and terms and conditions in clear, easy to understand, unambiguous language to represent your brand. Deborah has also written a great article on this, with some advice for institutions updating or creating their own policy content.

We are now in new higher education landscape, and institutions must change with it

We live in a world where student-institution relationships are changing, and everyone is struggling to adjust to a 'new normal' after the coronavirus pandemic. Both regulators and universities working to protect and promote the interests of students in this new landscape face challenges.

The CMA is just a start though. Universities should be using regulations and laws to build their brand to show authenticity, quality and build trust in all areas. The positive thing is that universities are currently scoring highly in the trust department with students and prospective students. So they now need to work hard to build, protect and support this unique relationship through their content.

Find out how GatherContent can help higher ed institutions improve their content creation and management processes and productivity for high-quality, compliant content.

Universities need to be compliant with consumer market authority to protect students, their brand and their reputation.

For UK higher ed institutions, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) needs to be understood and adhered to. Schools and colleges should consider the CMA guidance (we’ll explain what this is later in this article) and assess their compliance, ensuring everyone is aware, including:

  • student recruitment
  • admissions
  • communications and PR
  • marketing
  • university management and administration,
  • social media and community management
  • content creators

Students as consumers is not new, but it is becoming more important  

The idea of students as consumers started when fees were introduced. But the question ‘are students learners or consumers?’ is often one of fierce debate, and higher ed institutions must strike a balance. Interestingly though, a 2017 survey found that 47% of students consider themselves to be consumers, and the rest do not.

Yet with digital transformation and COVID-19, the world has changed, and with it so have student-institution relationships. While there are some positive changes to come out of the pandemic, the disruption of the coronavirus and transition to remote learning means many students are left feeling abandoned, and concerned that they won’t reach their full potential due to missing out on physical teaching time and access to student facilities. And colleges and universities are now having to work hard under pressure to ensure they deliver an excellent online experience.

So what does the consumer market authority mean for content people in higher education? What should teams keep in mind when creating content to keep it compliant? In this article we’ll cover the basics of the legislation and advice given by authorities, and then give tips on how to make sure your content is compliant and consumer-friendly.

Consumer market authority legislation: a brief overview

The Competition and Markets Authority became fully operational in 2014, and sets out consumer rights, which now apply to students. Documents and guidance on consumer protection from the CMA for higher education institutions were published in March 2015, which details obligations under consumer protection law. There are two key documents amongst others on the government website:

We’ll summarise the CMA in the next sections. Also, formed in 2018 is the new Office for Students (OfS), an independent regulator for the higher education sector in England. They cover a range of areas to protect students, including consumer rights. The Office for Students has recently announced substantially reduced regulatory requirements for universities and colleges during the pandemic, but has stressed that consumer protection law does still apply.

Broad areas for compliance in the Competitions and Markets Authority

In the CMA, consumer protection law applies at three main stages of interaction between an HE provider and prospective student:

  • Stage 1: research and application stage. When the prospective student considers options for what and where to study, and then makes an application.
  • Stage 2: offer stage. When the prospective student decides whether to accept an offer of a place with an HE provider.
  • Stage 3: enrolment stage. When the student enrols with the HE provider.

Universities and colleges must make sure students can access the information they need to make informed decisions and the best choice for them in the pre- contractual stage (before their offer is made) and post-contractual (once their offer is made). The CMA is there to ensure students are treated fairly throughout their journey in HE.

Here are the broad areas for compliance to consider:

  • Information provision. Providing up front, clear, accurate, comprehensive, unambiguous and timely information to prospective and current students.
  • Terms and conditions. Ensuring terms and conditions that apply to students are fair, and balanced. HE providers should not rely on terms that could disadvantage students.
  • Complaint handling processes and practices. Making sure complaint handling processes and practices are accessible, clear and fair to students.

We’ll explain later in this article how to ensure your content is clear, transparent, in plain language, and that terms and conditions, policies and procedures are laid out in a way that is easily understandable for students.

Tips for making content consumer-friendly

We’ve established that making sure content provides for students and meets their needs is important. But what do students think about universities? There is a particularly interesting report by Universities UK and ComRes on what students want from universities. The report reviews student attitudes to, and perspectives on, their relationship with their university in the context of increased financial contribution, market competition and consumer rights. Key findings were:

  • 79% value the relationship they have with their university
  • 87% say their university treats its students fairly
  • 80% said that personalised advice and support are among the top three things they want from their relationship with their university
  • 62% say the university care about their best interest, and this is compared with only 20% for their bank or building society

What the report found overall was that students have a high level of trust and personal relationships with institutions, compared to other sectors, and that the success and satisfaction of students is based on trust in the educational mission of their university. Under the CMA, this needs to be communicated through content. Here are five tips for making your content consumer-friendly:

1. Getting website content up to scratch

It’s important to get website content up to scratch with COVID-19 and digital transformation, for 2020 and beyond. Your website is one of the first places students go. Research on digital admissions by mStoner found that 92% of student respondents said university websites are more important than social media posts.

You need to make sure that all of the content on your website is organised, with strong information architecture so students can easily navigate and find the information they need. Ultimately you need to give a great user experience. Think about things like:

2. Thinking about pre-university students

As we’ve discussed, pre-university students have consumer rights too. With the coronavirus pandemic, there are a lot of changes to the way students are applying for universities, and also to their future courses. Our friends at Pickle Jar Communications, a consultancy providing digital strategy and support for higher ed have just done some really interesting research on A-level student perspectives and mindsets.

Their Head of Research and Insight Robert Perry has presented a webinar with us, sharing the results of the report. They found that while some students are happy to work remotely, understandably, the pandemic has caused a lot of anxieties and has put many students off university completely for the next year. Institutions must work hard with course content, marketing and communications to restore faith in pre-university students. They must hear and address student concerns, show humanity and tap into conversations happening.

3. Programme and course information

This is a really big part of the CMA guidance. Programme and course information needs to be upfront, up-to-date, accurate, and include full costs of programmes. Changes in courses and innovation happens, and students understand this, but if there are any programme changes then these need to be communicated clearly. Universities are no longer allowed to modify courses without consulting or advising current and prospective students in advance, and changes must be communicated in advance. Some universities have put out advice for this, like The University of Sheffield.

Course content and delivery is part of a student’s pre-contractual terms and becomes the contract terms once an offer has been accepted. Therefore universities also need to think about students in the pre-contractual stage, and plan for content and module changes much earlier than before to ensure course descriptions reflect these.

4. Writers should serve readers, not the other way around

Writers need to write for their reader. They need to understand consumer pain points and point of view to foster a good relationship through content, and then create content to help them reach their goal or solve their problem. Content needs to be easy for readers to understand. It shouldn’t make the reader work hard. Online, we find it harder to read content, so we skim and scan. Universities and colleges need to break content up logically, using headings and bullet points where you can to make it easier to digest. Use social listening to gain audience insights on social media, then create articles and meaningful content for students on your website and blog.

5. Writing non-academic and non-marketing content in plain language

Often, terms in providers’ complaints processes could act as a barrier to students raising or pursuing a complaint. Under the CMA, higher ed institutions need to make it simple for students to raise an issue if they have one. We’ve just recently hosted a webinar, presented by Deborah Bosely, content expert and founder of the Plain Language Group on writing policies, procedures and terms and conditions in clear, easy to understand, unambiguous language to represent your brand. Deborah has also written a great article on this, with some advice for institutions updating or creating their own policy content.

We are now in new higher education landscape, and institutions must change with it

We live in a world where student-institution relationships are changing, and everyone is struggling to adjust to a 'new normal' after the coronavirus pandemic. Both regulators and universities working to protect and promote the interests of students in this new landscape face challenges.

The CMA is just a start though. Universities should be using regulations and laws to build their brand to show authenticity, quality and build trust in all areas. The positive thing is that universities are currently scoring highly in the trust department with students and prospective students. So they now need to work hard to build, protect and support this unique relationship through their content.

Find out how GatherContent can help higher ed institutions improve their content creation and management processes and productivity for high-quality, compliant content.

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About the author

Paige Toomes

Paige is an English Literature and Media graduate from Newcastle University, and over the last three years has built up a career in SEO-driven copywriting for tech companies. She has written for Microsoft, Symantec and LinkedIn, as well as other SaaS companies and IT consulting firms. With an audience-focused approach to content, Paige handles the lifecycle from creation through to measurement, supporting businesses with their content operations.

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