Universities face ‘fair trading’ probe

The United Kingdom’s Office of Fair Trading, set up to make markets work in consumers’ interests, has launched an investigation into competition between universities in England.

The probe will focus on the impact regulation has on universities' and students' experiences of the current system.

Specifically it wants to find out the extent to which 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.

Fundamental to the investigation is information on whether the current regulatory system is contributing to effective competition or undermining it – for example, by creating any barriers to universities expanding or innovating.

And it will seek to establish whether students can access the right information to enable them to make properly informed choices about universities and courses, and whether there is sufficient clarity about what students can expect.

The probe will also investigate whether universities meet students' expectations and whether there are appropriate channels for complaints and access to redress if things go wrong.

Clive Maxwell, chief executive of the Office of Fair Trading, or OFT, said: “Universities in England enjoy an enviable reputation across the world. 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.”

The 10-week investigation is the second of two launched by the OFT in the wake of the 2012 higher education White Paper and the decision to allow universities to set fees at up to £9,000 (US$14,500) a year, subject to taking steps to broaden access under agreements with the Office for Fair Access.

Under its consumer protection powers, the OFT is already probing the terms and conditions used by some universities to prevent students from graduating or enrolling for the next academic year or using university facilities if they are in debt to the university for non-academic costs such as for accommodation or childcare, or if they engage in conduct (unrelated to academic performance) of which the university disapproves.

It is considering whether such contract terms and-or practices breach the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 or other consumer protection legislation.

Terms and conditions from 115 universities have been analysed and the OFT has been discussing their impact with universities, student bodies and other relevant stakeholders. It has also requested specific information from a number of universities about how they use these terms in practice, and what they think the impact would be if they did not use them.

The OFT will not reach a final view on whether the law may have been infringed until it has completed its investigation. It stressed that it should not be assumed at this stage that any breach of consumer protection legislation has occurred.


The hike in tuition fees was inevitably going to mean that the student experience would change. It has never been more important for graduates to have real world skills – real world skills that employers are increasingly expecting their new recruits to have. But students need their universities to provide access to the tools and facilities that will help them develop these skills in the first place.

Naturally, students are questioning the value for money they get from their university and feel entitled to a better quality degree for the extra money they are paying. Our own Digital Campus research earlier this year, which surveyed the 2012/13 intake of undergraduates, the first to pay the higher fees, revealed that universities still have a way to go in achieving this.

Of the students we spoke to, 55% admit their university is not living up to their expectations, specifically pinpointing the lack of suitable facilities such as libraries, and technology provision as the main areas needing improvement. As many as half only have access to basic tools such as internet, email and basic programmes, falling short of the 82% who expect their university to go above and beyond a basic technology provision before they started their course.

University vice-chancellors must step up to the challenge, and quickly, to meet the demands of the next generation of student. Needless to say, those able to adapt their strategies will be far more appealing to students looking for reassurances that they’ll have more than just debt to show for their university careers.

Mark A'Bear is education manager, Adobe UK.