The Westminster government has ordered a “comprehensive” review of admissions practices in English universities, amid concern about the “unacceptable” use of so-called “conditional unconditional” offers.
Damian Hinds, the education secretary, said that he would ask the Office for Students to conduct the review as the Department for Education confirmed that he had written to 23 universities calling on them to stop issuing conditional unconditional offers, which become unconditional only when an applicant selects the university as their firm choice.
Mr Hinds said that universities that made conditional unconditional offers were “backing students into a corner”, potentially deterring applicants from exploring other options that could actually be more suitable for them.
The intervention comes after the OfS warned that using conditional unconditional offers – of which there were 66,315 made last year, equivalent to 6.9 per cent of all offers – were “akin to pressure selling” and could breach consumer law.
As details of Mr Hinds’ letter were circulated, several universities to which it was addressed said that they had already stopped using conditional unconditional offers.
The details of the broader review will be announced later, but the DfE said that Mr Hinds would ask the OfS to undertake it in guidance sent to the regulator setting out his priorities for the next financial year.
“The scope of the review would be developed in due course. But the education secretary would like the OfS to look at ways of improving current practices, including greater access and participation for students from under-represented groups and disadvantaged backgrounds,” the department said.
On conditional unconditional offers, Mr Hinds said that it was “simply unacceptable for universities to adopt pressure-selling tactics”, arguing that they were “damaging the reputation of the institutions involved and our world-leading sector as a whole”.
He said that he was “concerned about the wider picture of how some universities are getting students through their doors, so I am asking the OfS to look at how well current admissions practices serve students and how they can be improved, so we can protect the integrity of our higher education system”.
Mr Hinds’ statement followed similar interventions on grade inflation and essay mills, and have been seen by some as an attempt to take back control of the DfE’s stance on higher education from his more junior colleague, Chris Skidmore, the universities minister, ahead of the publication of the review of post-18 funding.
Mr Skidmore has been seen as being sympathetic towards universities, whereas Mr Hinds’ interventions could be about building the case for the review to shift funding from higher education to further education – and potentially about building a case for the reintroduction of student number controls.
Mr Skidmore said that the admissions review “will be an important moment for the sector to ensure the system works in the interests of students, and provides a truly accurate measure of performance for universities going forwards”.
Paul Cottrell, acting general secretary of the University and College Union, said that the new review would be the “perfect opportunity” to shift to a system of post-qualifications applications, where students apply to university once they have got their grades.
Gordon Marsden, the shadow universities minister, said that the rise in unconditional offers was “a direct result of the Tories’ marketised approach to higher education, which has piled pressure on institutions to recruit students”.
“Any review of current admissions processes must be robust, independent and wide-ranging. It must focus not just on unconditional offers but also the case for post-qualification admissions and the lack of progress on improving access and widening participation in our higher education sector,” Mr Marsden said.