Minister warns English universities against unconditional offers

English universities urged to refrain from increasing use of controversial offers after exams cancelled amid virus crisis

March 24, 2020

English universities have been urged by the government to refrain from increasing their use of unconditional offers as the cancellation of exams during the coronavirus outbreak sparks an admissions scramble.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, has asked universities not to change offers made to undergraduate students for the next two weeks, such as converting conditional offers to unconditional offers or changing entry requirements.

Universities were already under fire from the government over their use of unconditional offers, which many fear demotivate students and lead to lower exam grades. After school closures led to the cancellation of exams across the UK, some universities are said to be switching offers from conditional to unconditional to secure students amid uncertainty about how students will be awarded grades and the impact on institutions’ admissions.

The two-week period is intended to “allow time for further advice to be given to students and providers about how the new system of awarding A-level grades will work, and how the admissions arrangements will work”, the Department for Education said.

Ms Donelan said: “We are facing unprecedented circumstances as a country, but it is essential that we create a period of stability for both students and universities.

“As universities seek to secure attendance for the next academic year, I would ask them to refrain from changing existing offers to unconditional offers as it risks destabilising the entire admissions systems.

“We must also look out for students, too, who in these uncertain times may be feeling anxious about their futures. I want to reassure students that we will provide them with the grades they need. No student should feel pressured into making a quick decision, which may end up not being in their best interest.

“I am asking for a two-week pause while we work with the sector over this period on admissions arrangements.”

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said: “It would be quite wrong for any university or college to respond to the coronavirus crisis by making unconditional offers that may undermine the sustainability of the university system and increase the financial pressure on other providers.

“Many universities and colleges have been responding to the enormous challenges of coronavirus with innovation and ingenuity. But it is critical that every university and college puts the student’s interest first in these difficult times.

“So, I want to make it very clear to any university or college – and its leaders and governors – that if any university or college adjusts any offer to students, or makes any unconditional offers, during this two-week moratorium, we will use any powers available to us to prevent such offer-making on the grounds that it is damaging to students and not in their interests.”

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “We support today’s call and believe universities will respond positively to ensure that no student feels rushed into a decision at what is already a difficult time.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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