To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy regarding the level of likelihood of enforcement action by the Competition and Markets Authority against universities in response to potential breaches of consumer law as a result of the covid-19 pandemic.
1 February 2021
The government has been clear throughout the COVID-19 outbreak that we expect providers to ensure they are fully complying with their consumer law obligations. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) offers guidance on consumer law for higher education (HE) providers. The CMA has been clear that obligations under the law have not changed and providers must ensure they are meeting them.
The CMA currently has a programme of work relating to cancellations and refunds, and has issued advice and taken enforcement action in several sectors. Officials at the Department for Education are in regular contact with the CMA and the Office for Students (OfS) in relation to relevant issues in the HE sector which have arisen due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
On 30 November 2020, the CMA published a re-statement of their views on consumer law in relation to HE. The CMA had also previously published guidance on consumer contracts, cancellation and refunds affected by COVID-19. This sets out the CMA’s view on how the law operates to help students understand their rights and help providers treat their students fairly. This is available via the following link: https://www.gov.uk/cma-cases/consumer-protection-review-of-higher-education.
Although the CMA is able to take enforcement action where there are breaches of consumer law, in HE the OfS as the regulatory body also has an important role. All registered providers are subject to ongoing OfS conditions of registration relating to student protection and consumer law.
The government expects quality and academic standards will be maintained, and the OfS has made it clear that all HE providers must continue to comply with registration conditions relating to quality and standards. I wrote to the OfS on 13 January 2021, outlining the government’s expectations of the higher education sector following the new national measures put in place.
Following this, the OfS wrote to providers’ Accountable Officers, setting out the actions they are taking in connection with providers’ compliance with existing regulatory requirements. The OfS has produced specific guidance as to how compliance will be assessed in the light of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The OfS has also previously published guidance on student consumer protection during the COVID-19 outbreak, which is available via the following link: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/student-wellbeing-and-protection/student-protection/consumer-benefit-forum/.
If students have concerns, they should first raise their concerns with their university. If their concerns remain unresolved, students at providers in England or Wales can ask the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for higher education to consider their complaint.