A government department has sent warning letters to companies that provide goods and services to disabled students, after receiving allegations of price-fixing.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has sent “advisory letters” to “a number of firms” reminding them of their legal duties.
CMA was passed allegations that some suppliers had colluded over setting prices for services and equipment, which would be a serious breach of competition law.
The department declined this week to provide any details of how many companies it had written to, or which goods and services were affected.
But the allegations concern equipment and services funded through the disabled students’ allowance (DSA) system, which is managed by the Student Loans Company (SLC) on behalf of the UK and Welsh governments.
CMA said it was concerned that SLC “may have paid over the odds for certain goods and services because some suppliers agreed prices before providing quotations”.
This could have increased prices and reduced the amount individual disabled students had available through their DSA to obtain equipment such as computer software or a voice recorder, or services such as personal assistance.
CMA said it had not yet made a legal finding as to whether competition law has been broken, but it said it would “keep this sector under review”, with the possibility of further action if its concerns were not “fully addressed”.
Disabled Students UK (DSUK), a grassroots organisation led and controlled by disabled students, said the “warning of the price-fixing of disabled students’ supplies is yet another clear indication that urgent and meaningful action needs to be taken in supporting disabled students”.
It called for oversight of the system that was led by disabled people, as the “lack of oversight and accountability allows provision of inadequate services to continue”.
It said it would be “sadly no surprise” if price-fixing was taking place because “time after time we hear of students who are provided inadequate or unsuitable equipment from unqualified suppliers”.
A DSUK spokesperson said: “Services being provided by independent companies are meant to be led by student choice, the aim being that companies that provide good service get more business, with disabled students being able to turn down or move from unsuitable suppliers.
“However, this is not happening as disabled students cannot in practice compare and choose between suppliers.”
DSUK said this had not been helped by government reforms that led to the closure of DSA-QAG, the charity that previously checked the quality of DSA suppliers.
It added: “This latest issue of price-fixing is an extra concern given that the Disabled Students’ Commission* has already cited difficulties in accessing DSA and delays in the implementation of reasonable adjustments.
“Support for disabled students needs to be at the core of our education system, not seen as an optional extra that can be marketised and therefore give rise to these predatory companies which seek to take advantage.
“While we appreciate that SLC will be making changes to improve transparency and limit anti-competitive behaviour, these changes need to be guided by the needs of disabled students and ensure that the heavy administrative burden already on disabled students, uncovered by the Arriving at Thriving report, is not further increased.”
Piers Wilkinson (pictured, right), former disabled students officer with the National Union of Students and now higher education policy and partnerships lead for the disabled-led social enterprise Diversity and Ability, said DSA was an “essential support tool for many disabled people to access higher education, and quality provision has to be the top priority for SLC, the Department for Education and DSA providers”.
They said that disabled students had to be “at the heart” of any service provided through DSA.
They said: “The combination of insufficient attempts to audit the quality of DSA services and an administrative model that prioritises cost as a key deciding factor ultimately places disabled students in the middle of a damaging free market crossfire.
“Yes, the CMA should be worried about price-fixing, but they should also be worried that disabled students are receiving support that, in many cases, is not fit for purpose.
“Any price tag, be it high or low, is money poorly spent if the student doesn’t leave feeling enabled.”
Fazilet Hadi (left), head of policy at Disability Rights UK, said: “It would be scandalous if there had been price fixing on the part of suppliers of goods and services to disabled students and it is good news that the Competition and Markets Authority has raised this issue.
“Price fixing would not only take money from public funds, it would also mean that disabled students had less buying power from their disabled students’ allowance.”
A spokesperson for the Office for Students (OfS) – the independent regulatory body for higher education in England – said the CMA findings were “worrying for disabled students” and suggested that the Disabled Students’ Commission “may wish to consider how it could influence future practice”.
But OfS declined to comment further as it said the issue fell outside its “regulatory remit”.
The Student Loans Company has told CMA that it is making changes to how it procures goods and services for disabled students through the DSA system.
It claims this will “increase transparency of pricing and increase competition thus limiting the potential for any anti-competitive behaviour” and will also “improve the customer experience” for students receiving DSA.
An SLC spokesperson said: “SLC takes these allegations of anti-competitive behaviour within the DSA supplier base extremely seriously, as the extensive nature of our reforms demonstrate.”
Michael Grenfell, CMA’s executive director of enforcement, said: “Healthy competition is the cornerstone of getting the best deal so we are concerned if companies might be doing something to threaten that.
“It is particularly troubling in this case if the interests of disabled students are affected, and if public funding is hit.
“We trust that the letters we have issued, and today’s announcement, send a clear message.
“Any suppliers engaging in price fixing with competitors, or other illegal collusion, need to review their practices and make changes now.”
*An independent group set up by OfS to “challenge universities and colleges in England to improve support for disabled students”
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