OFT calls for information on the provision of the undergraduate higher education
Last week, the Office of Fair Trading announced that it was calling for information about the way in which the undergraduate system of higher education works.
In an unusually wide ranging document, the OFT made it clear that it is interested in examining not only the experience of students as consumers, but also the extent of competition between universities.
In relation to the student experience, the OFT is looking at the process of both applying for a place and then studying for a degree. It wants information about the relevance and accuracy of information that is provided to students when they are thinking about applying and whether the information that is provided sufficiently explains matters such as the overall cost of degrees, access to facilities, teaching methods and length of terms.
It also wants to hear from students about how universities meet their expectations and what procedures there are if their expectations are not met.
The OFT appears to be focussing its interest in competition issues not only on how universities compete in terms of setting fees, deciding on degree content and delivering courses, but also whether concerns about the implications of competition law are holding universities back from collaborating in ways which would benefit students.
In addition, the OFT will be looking at whether the system of regulation of universities is distorting or undermining competition or stifling innovation in areas such as novel methods of course delivery.
Our experience is that calls for information such as these rarely end without further investigation. One which did was the recent examination of forecourt petrol and diesel prices, but its conclusions were widely slated in the press.
The wide ranging nature of this call for evidence means that the options open to the OFT include both competition enforcement proceedings and consumer enforcement proceedings if the information provided to it by universities or others suggests that breaches of the law are taking place. The OFT could even commence a full scale market study in the event that the information suggested that the market has effects which are adverse to the interests of students.
The closing date for submissions is 31 December, but universities will be contacted by the OFT in the meantime with a detailed request for information.