Universities face Office of Fair Trading review

Students in library The OFT review will look at consumer rights and competition in undergraduate further education

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The Office of Fair Trading has turned its attention to the university sector with plans to review students' consumer rights and university competition.

The move follows concerns of inadequate regulation and variable teaching quality at institutions in England.

The OFT has called for information from students, universities, regulators, government bodies and employers.

It said choice between universities should "play a positive role in underpinning their success in future".

OFT chief executive Clive Maxwell acknowledged that universities in England "enjoy an enviable reputation across the world".

The review will focus on undergraduate higher education, particularly on whether recent changes aimed at giving students in England more choice and driving competition, have been effective.

Student expectations

It defines university as including any provider of higher education courses.

The review will look at whether the regulatory system is contributing to effective competition or undermining it.

Earlier this month, a report criticised university regulation in England as inadequate in an era of higher student fees.

The Higher Education Commission said that before higher fees were introduced last year, universities depended on teaching grants which came with regulatory conditions attached - but as the value of teaching grants falls and student fees rise, the ability to regulate universities through funding is also reduced.

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It's essential that students can access better information about the academic experience on offer so they can see whether they are getting value for money”

End Quote Sonia Sodha Which?

The OFT says it is particularly interested to hear how universities compete for students, how they deliver value for money and how they decide which courses to offer and how to deliver them.

It will ask whether information from universities is adequate to help prospective students decide where and what to study, whether universities meet students' expectations and what they can do if they need to complain.

In May, a report by the consumer group Which? and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) revealed big variations in teaching time, with students at some universities getting twice as much teaching as others doing the same subject elsewhere.

It included a poll that found that almost one in three first-year students at UK universities felt their courses were not good value for money.

Transparency

Sonia Sodha, head of public services at Which?, said she hoped the OFT review would lead 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.

"With increased tuition fees and a greater choice of universities and courses than ever before, it's essential that students can access better information about the academic experience on offer so they can see whether they are getting value for money."

Toni Pearce, president of the National Union of Students, said: "It would be useful to have an external view of what is working well, and in the best interests of students, and what may need some reform.

"We would be particularly interested to hear what the OFT finds on issues NUS has campaigned on over many years, such as student access to information, including full transparency on teaching arrangements, complaints procedures, and means of redress if and when things go wrong."

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, welcomed the review in the light of major changes to the sector.

"It is still early days in terms of assessing how the changes are 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."

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