Education Secretary calls for review of university admissions practices, which have seen students ‘backed into a corner’ to accept places.

A full review of university admissions is required to end ‘unacceptable’ practices some universities use to lure students into accepting higher education places, the Education Secretary said today (5 April).

Damian Hinds is calling for a review of admissions practices after the extent that ‘conditional unconditional’ offers are used by institutions was revealed by UCAS last year.

A ‘conditional unconditional’ offer from a university informs students that they are guaranteed a place, but only if they put the university as their first option.

This could breach laws designed to protect consumers from entering into a transaction they otherwise wouldn’t have.

In letters to the 23 universities using this recruitment technique, Mr Hinds will call on them to end this practice. He will say they are ‘backing students into a corner’ to accept a place at their institution – trapping them from exploring other options that could be more suitable.

A small number of institutions have recently decided to end this practice, and now Mr Hinds is calling for other universities to follow suit.

Education Secretary Damian Hinds said:

"It is simply unacceptable for universities to adopt pressure-selling tactics, which are harming students’ grades in order to fill places. It is not what I expect to see from our world-class higher education institutions.

"‘Conditional unconditional’ offers are damaging the reputation of the institutions involved and our world-leading sector as a whole. That is why I will be writing to 23 universities, urging them to stamp out this unethical practice.

"But I am 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."

UCU acting general secretary Paul Cottrell said:

‘We are pleased the minister is looking seriously at the use and abuse of unconditional offers. Unconditional offers put too much pressure on young people to make a snap decision about their future and are symptomatic of a broken admissions system where offers are made using predicted grades rather than actual results.

‘Instead of tinkering around the edges, this review is the perfect opportunity for an overhaul of the system so university offers are based on actual achievements instead on guesswork. Shifting to a system where students apply to university after they receive their grades would make unconditional offers redundant and bring us in line with the rest of the world.’

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Universities UK said:

“There are clear benefits for students in universities being able to use a variety of offer making practices that reflect the individual student’s circumstances and potential.

“As with all offers to study at university, universities must be able to explain why and how they award unconditional offers with conditions attached. We are already working together with UCAS, reviewing existing guidance and gaining a better understanding of how these offers are being used. This work will help inform the review and includes surveying universities to understand how good practice is being adopted, and holding forums to discuss best practice.

“It is essential that admissions processes and policies are fair and transparent, underpinned by clear criteria and in the best interest of students.”

Clare Marchant, UCAS’ Chief Executive said:

“Students’ best interests must be the paramount consideration for universities and colleges when making offers. It’s essential that students are supported to make informed choices and the right decisions about their future.

“Last year, UCAS revealed the extent of increases in unconditional offer making as part of our commitment to transparency in admissions, which now sees us publish nearly three million data points each year. 

“We welcome the review of admissions practices and look forward to continuing our work with the Office for Students as the review’s scope and remit is shaped. There needs to be a clear objective that any recommendations put the interests of students first, working with teachers, universities and colleges.

“UCAS has worked with a variety of universities and colleges to produce a series of good practice resources to support admissions teams when making unconditional offers.”

David Hughes, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, said:

“This is an important review which needs to address the worrying rapid rise in unconditional offers, as well as the number of so-called year zero courses being offered. Making the transition to higher education is tough for most students but is made even harder when the last few months of learning have been lost.

“AoC will be happy to contribute intelligence from our members to the review on the impact on students, on motivation, on completion of Level 3 courses and on choices. 

“For the review to be thorough it will need to understand the range of choices young people make and how university behaviour supports or undermines the best choices. Young people need the best support and advice to make the right choice for their future.” 

Gordon Marsden MP, Shadow Higher Education Minister, said:

“The rise of unconditional offers is a direct result of the Tories’ marketised approach to Higher Education, which has piled pressure on institutions to recruit students.

“This situation is now worsening: future Higher Education income is threatened, and there is a feeding frenzy of competition for students now.

“The rise in unconditional offers is harming disadvantaged students, who are most likely to have lower predicted grades.

“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.”

‘Conditional unconditional’ offers are a subset of all offers with an ‘unconditional’ component, which have risen drastically across subjects in recent years.

The Education Secretary’s concerns over admissions is the final in a series of interventions in the higher education sector, following announcements made around essay writing services and grade inflation in recent weeks.

In 2018, 34.4 per cent of 18-year-olds from England, Northern Ireland and Wales received a form of unconditional offer whereas in 2013, this figure was just 1.1 per cent. This means 87,540 applicants were given some form of offer with an unconditional component before they sat their final exams at school or college.

In 2018, the University of Roehampton made 1,940 conditional unconditional offers to 18-year-olds from England, Northern Ireland and Wales, representing 65.8% of all their offers made to this group. Nottingham Trent University made 8,380 ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, representing 39.9% of all offers.

UCAS data published last year also shows that students who accept unconditional offers, whether conditions are applied or not, are proportionally 7 per cent more likely to miss their predicted A levels by two grades than students with conditional offers.

Universities Minister Chris Skidmore said:

"This excessive use of conditional unconditional offers is not in the best interests of students – and it is worrying to see such a major rise in their use across all subjects.

"I know there is a place for unconditional offers, but I expect universities to use them responsibly. They must not be used to place students in a position where they are forced to make choices before they know their respective options. Where institutions are not acting in the best interests of students the Office for Students should use their full range of powers to take action.

"The review of admissions practices 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."

The Education Secretary will be asking the OfS to take a comprehensive look at university admissions procedures, in guidance sent to the regulator setting out his priorities for the 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 underrepresented groups and disadvantaged backgrounds.

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