Universities to come under OFT microscope

The Office of Fair Trading is to examine England’s universities, including how they compete for students and set fees under the £9,000 regime.

October 22, 2013

The OFT announced today that it has launched a “call for information on the provision of undergraduate higher education in England by universities and other institutions”, in response to the introduction of the new fees and funding system.

If the OFT is satisfied, the “call for information” will not result in any further action.

However, today’s move also has the potential to spark a lengthier process, including a fuller “market study” by the OFT, if it finds issues that merit further examination. That could lead to enforcement action against universities. The OFT also has the option to call in the Competition Commission.

Among the areas where the OFT said it was “particularly interested in receiving information” were “how universities compete between themselves for students, in order to deliver value for money, including how they go about setting fees, deciding what courses to offer and how they should be delivered”.

Clive Maxwell, OFT chief executive, said: “We want to ensure that choice and competition between universities play a positive role in underpinning their success in future, and encourage students, universities, employers and others to respond to our call for information.”

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said that it was “early days” in terms of assessing how the new fees and funding system is working, “but universities have done a great deal already to increase the amount of available information on courses and to respond to feedback from students”.

Toni Pearce, National Union of Students president, said her organisation “very much welcomes” the OFT’s move.

She called for the OFT to look at issues such as “student access to information, including full transparency on teaching arrangements and costs availability, complaints procedures, and means of redress if and when things go wrong”.

Sir Tim Wilson, chair of the Higher Education Better Regulation Group, said it was “reasonable that the OFT undertake its due diligence to understand what [the funding] changes mean to students, the public and the sector”.

Sonia Sodha, head of public services at Which?, said: “We’re pleased the OFT is looking into choice and competition in higher education and we hope this leads to an improvement in the quality of university courses.

“Our comparisons with previous decades show that today’s students are working for fewer hours, are set less work and are receiving less detailed feedback.”


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