Do universities have the right to substantially change degree content?

Article in Guardian Higher Education today about whether universities should be entitled to drastically alter courses for new and existing students. A case is mentioned of a student who found out a few weeks before starting that her single honours course was only available as joint honours.

I had a few thoughts on this.

One of the commenters mentioned that the contract between uni and student doesn’t start until the first day of the course. As a previous admissions’ tutor I was surprised by this. I was always told that an offer was a binding contract, hence the paranoia at clearing of making offers over the phone to unqualified candidates.

Courses are dynamic things. They are very dependent on teaching staff expertise. So, if a member of staff leaves over the summer, their courses are likely to be removed as an option. As staff never know whether they are leaving or not there is no pragmatic way of getting around this. This is certainly preferable to having unqualified staff stumbling through a module.

But, to change a course completely? To tell candidates that a degree is no longer available? I would have thought that these changes would need to be brought in gradually. Isn’t an acceptance letter from a uni for a specific course a binding contract? If it isn’t, what is the point of it? Although, of course, students seem to be able to back out of courses at the last minute. If students want to be able to do this without having to pay a penalty, why shouldn’t uni’s change the content of courses at the last minute?

I suppose the issue is one of choice and transparency. Which led me to comment on the article about the Scottish system. It is usually a huge surprise for students to find out that even though they applied and were accepted for a degree course, they may not actually come out with that degree. Competition and limited places on honours courses abound. You might accept and start on a physics degree but you might end up with an honours biology one, or even tanking out in third year with a general degree.

This has always niggled at me. The system produces good students but it is the fact that the students don’t know these things before starting. It isn’t in the prospectuses or on the websites.

It has always surprised me that the Scottish uni’s haven’t been taken to court for breaching consumer law for this issue. If students knew this upfront they could make rationale decisions, they may even decide to apply somewhere else. It’s a bit late once you’ve started.

All I ask for is a bit of transparency. I thought that was a big buzz word in middle management and HR

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