On 22 October 2013, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) announced it has launched a call for information concerning undergraduate higher education provided by universities and other institutions.
As a result of recent reforms in the higher education sector, an ever-increasing amount of universities' funding comes directly from students.
The OFT is keen to understand how reform has affected the competitive landscape of the higher education sector, including:
- how universities compete for students, (i.e. how they decide which courses to offer and how they set course fees)
- whether the current regulatory system helps or hinders effective competition (for example, by creating barriers to expansion or innovation)
- whether there is adequate information available to students to help them choose between courses and course providers, and whether there is sufficient clarity about what students can expect from their course provider, such as the overall cost of their chosen course and the teaching methods used
- whether universities are delivering on student expectations and the mechanisms that exist for dealing with student complaints
The call for information is limited to England, as higher education is a devolved matter in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
It will include universities, university colleges, colleges of higher education and other higher education providers, with or without degree awarding powers.
The process will see the OFT talking to universities and students over the next 10 weeks. It will also liaise with groups such as employers of graduates, government and regulatory organisations, and groups with a special interest in higher education. Other interested parties are also invited to submit comments or evidence.
The OFT will review submissions and analyse the evidence it collects, before publishing a summary of findings and proposed next steps during March 2014.
If the OFT decides that the results merit further action, it could launch a more detailed, formal market study of the sector; or issue guidance to government, higher education providers, and/or students.
Evidence of specific anti-competitive concerns could even prompt it to consider initiating enforcement proceedings.
Separately, the OFT is in the middle of a consumer-protection investigation into universities' terms and conditions. It is expected that the findings from this call for information will help inform the OFT's understanding of that market, too.
Interested parties have until midday on 31 December 2013 to make submissions to the OFT.
Further information about the call for information, including details of where to submit written views, feedback or evidence, can be found on the OFT's case page.