Competition lawyers speaking to the Times Educational Supplement have suggested that the rule of combination, that prevents students from applying to Oxford and Cambridge simultaneously, could be unlawful.
EU law prohibits the artificial restriction of consumer choice by forming inter-institutional agreements, and applies to companies in particular.
Universities are not usually treated as companies, but recent increases in tuition fees may have affected this status and according to the Times, UCAS itself is a limited company.
The agreement dates from the 1980s when UCAS (then UCCA) tried to stem a flood of joint applications which had become too costly to process.
Dr Farrington, visiting fellow at the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, said that there “may be an element of uncompetitive practice … given the pre-eminence of those universities and their domination of the market”. However he added he would “not like to stick (his) neck out and say this is definitely the case”.
Christopher Townley, senior lecturer in international competition law and regulation at King’s College London also said that competition law “does have lots of implications in universities we haven’t thought through”.
A successful challenge to the Oxford/Cambridge agreement would complicate the admissions process at both universities, with the number of candidates deserving an interview potentially doubling. A change might also give more importance to the UCAS form and pre-admission tests, with more candidates being eliminated without an interview.
A spokesperson for the University of Oxford said: “…we compare all applicants for each subject against one another in one go in a gathered field, using multiple selection methods.
“This would be made significantly more difficult if the rule of combination was removed and applications increased sharply.”
Cambridge also wrote: “(t)he rule benefits students by accommodating the university’s holistic admissions selection process, which is central to our commitment to fair admissions and enables students from all backgrounds to demonstrate their potential.”
OUSU and CUSU, the universities’ student unions, expressed strong support for the rule of combination saying it aided fair access. It is difficult to know if similar support could be among students who made unsuccessful applications to Oxbridge.
The lack of overlap between some of the undergraduate courses on offer at Oxford and Cambridge would test applicants’ skills at writing personal statements that were relevant to tutors at either university. In Economics for instance Oxford only offers joint degrees, whereas Cambridge offers the subject as a standalone degree.
Most students asked by Cherwell said that they would probably have applied to both Oxford and Cambridge, given the chance.