England bans ‘conditional unconditional’ offers during pandemic

New rule represents scaling back of ‘alarmingly broad’ original proposal from regulator

July 3, 2020
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English universities have been banned from making controversial “conditional unconditional” offers to students during the coronavirus pandemic.

Institutions making the offers – which only become unconditional once an applicant accepts them as their firm choice – would be in breach of a new regulatory condition introduced by the Office for Students and could face a fine of up to or even beyond £500,000.

The rule, which runs until September 2021 and therefore covers admissions for the next two academic years, is designed to stop universities destabilising the English higher education sector by trying to lure applicants away from other providers. The condition also bars institutions from making false or misleading claims about other providers, with the aim of dissuading applicants from enrolling with them.

However, traditional unconditional offers – often used for applicants who already have qualifications or other relevant experience, and in creative courses where admission relies on portfolios and auditions – are still permitted under the condition, as are “contextual” offers, which allow students from disadvantaged backgrounds to enrol with lower grades than are typically allowed.

The rule was introduced following a consultation on a much broader condition that would have allowed the OfS to sanction any provider it felt was “engaging in any form of conduct which would be likely to have a serious and prejudicial effect on the stability and/or integrity of the English higher education sector”.

This rule – which would have been retrospective to March this year – was criticised by sector leaders and lawyers as being “alarmingly broad”.

The revised condition will not be retrospective, since the OfS said that it had not seen “any significant conduct” that would be likely to breach the rule, following a two-week moratorium on unconditional offers requested by universities minister Michelle Donelan on 23 March.

Nicola Dandridge, the OfS’ chief executive, said that conditional unconditional offers could “put pressure on students and distort their decision-making” and that, if they were used widely, this “risks destabilising the system”. The regulator’s concerns were “even more acute in these exceptional times”, she said.

“This condition is designed to avoid instability during the current uncertainty, and to protect students and the higher education sector in these extraordinary circumstances: it will not continue past September 2021. This should allay concerns that we wanted to extend our powers permanently, which we have no intention of doing,” Ms Dandridge said.

“The condition is a necessary and proportionate means to ensure the stability and integrity of the English higher education sector, to protect students’ interests, and to preserve a diversity of choice for students into the future.”

Under rules introduced by the Westminster government last month, English providers will have the number of students that they can recruit capped at their forecast growth plus 5 per cent.

But commentators have still warned of a scramble for students, with interest from domestic and international applicants expected to dip.

Ms Donelan said that she welcomed “the strong action against these potentially damaging practices while the sector navigates this uncertain period”. The minister said that she hoped that the ban would “continue beyond 2021”.

The latest data from Ucas show that 34 universities made conditional unconditional offers to 18-year-olds from England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the 2019 admissions cycle, up from 29 institutions the year before.

Many of the offers continued to be concentrated in just a handful of institutions. There were seven providers whose conditional unconditional offers made up more than 50 per cent of all their offers of a place, compared with just two universities the year before. Three of these institutions – Falmouth UniversityCanterbury Christ Church University and De Montfort University – had never employed the offers before, according to the data.

Some other institutions continued to represent a large share of all the conditional unconditional offers in the sector. Six universities accounted for almost half of them, and three – Nottingham Trent UniversityBirmingham City University and the University of Lincoln – were responsible for 30 per cent of them.


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Reader's comments (1)

Such offers should not exist at all. They make no sense in reality other than to aggressively grab students without consideration of what is in their best interests.