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Universities: Coronavirus

Question for Department for Education

UIN 173214, tabled on 22 March 2021

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, if he will require the Competition and Markets Authority formally assesses the offers made by universities for the 2020-21 student intake.

Answered on

1 April 2021

The government is committed to transforming the lives of young people so they can go as far as their hard work will take them. Our primary goal has been to ensure that the vast majority of students who wanted to go to university in the 2020-21 academic year could do so. We took steps, with support from the higher education (HE) sector, to increase capacity in the 2020-21 cycle. The end of cycle figures from UCAS for the 2020 cycle show that the percentage of accepted applicants deferring their place only went up by 0.7 percentage points compared to 2019. HE providers, as autonomous bodies, are independent from the government and are responsible for their own recruitment decisions.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is an independent non-ministerial department. The CMA makes its own choices about which cases to take forward based on its published prioritisation principles. The CMA offers guidance on consumer law for HE providers. It has been clear that obligations under the law have not changed during the COVID-19 outbreak and that HE providers must ensure that they are meeting these obligations.

The government has been clear throughout the COVID-19 outbreak that we expect providers to ensure that they are fully complying with their consumer law obligations, including in relation to admissions decisions. The department has regular contact with the CMA, including via the Consumer Benefit Forum, which was formed following the government’s consultation on the Office for Students (OfS) regulatory framework in 2017. Information about the Consumer Benefit Forum is available here: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/student-wellbeing-and-protection/student-protection/consumer-benefit-forum/.

On 30 November 2020, the CMA published a re-statement of their views on consumer law in relation to HE. This is available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5fc4bab98fa8f5474e63ab0b/HE_restatement_.pdf.

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 at: 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, the OfS also has an important role, as the regulatory body in HE. All registered HE providers are subject to ongoing OfS conditions of registration relating to student protection and consumer law. The OfS is also responsible for ensuring that HE providers comply with their registration requirements.

The OfS does not get involved in individual student complaints, as that is for the relevant HE provider and possibly the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. Students can, however, notify the OfS of issues that may be of regulatory interest to it. These are called ‘notifications’. The OfS uses this information as part of its regulatory monitoring activity and to keep HE providers under review to ensure that they comply with the ongoing conditions of registration. The OfS has produced a guide for students to support them in this process, which is available here: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/office-for-students-notifications/.