Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS

Many students were delighted to return to school last week. After such a difficult year – often with extremely disrupted learning – getting back in the classroom with their friends and teachers was a welcome boost. Those in their final year in college or sixth form will now be thinking about their next steps. 

Many of these students will go on to enter higher education. A record 42 per cent of UK 18-year-olds have applied already, according to UCAS data, representing a 12 per cent rise in applications from UK-based students between this and the previous year. Applications to study nursing have soared by almost a third, with many applicants perhaps inspired by the heroic work of frontline NHS workers.

These figures speak to the resilience and ambition of students across the country who, having had to put up with so much, remain determined to develop their lives and careers. It is only right that the admissions process to higher education works for students, and that students are fully supported when they start their courses this autumn. There are several things that universities and colleges need to get right over the next few months to make sure this happens, as many are already doing.

Equality of opportunity 

Fair access is a priority. The pandemic has hit many of the most disadvantaged groups hardest. A student from a low-income family without adequate space and resources to study will likely have faced far greater barriers to learning at home compared to their more advantaged peers. These barriers need to be recognised in the admissions process and beyond.

With the rise in applicant numbers and plans for teacher-assessed grades, universities and colleges are likely to have many well-qualified students to choose from. We can’t have a situation where talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds lose out as a result. 

We expect universities and colleges to do their part to admit and support the most disadvantaged students by continuing to meet commitments in their access and participation plans. In some cases, this will mean looking beyond grades to identify potential by understanding the context in which those grades have been achieved. Many universities have been using contextual factors to inform admissions decisions for several years – this will be particularly important now, but in relying on contextual factors it will be essential that students are properly supported beyond entry.

No pressure

All prospective students should be able to make decisions that are right for them. Last year we banned ‘conditional unconditional’ offers – offers which only become unconditional once an applicant accepts them as their firm choice instead of offers from other institutions. This was to ensure that students were not being put under unfair pressure to accept offers which may not be in their best interests. Universities have started making offers to students who will start courses in the autumn and this ban remains in place for this year’s admissions cycle.

 We have already seen potential evidence that some universities and colleges may not be complying. For example, cases have been drawn to our attention where large numbers of unconditional offers are being made or where offers are based solely on predicted grades – rather than the grades students go on to achieve. We will be investigating these instances further and have powers to impose fines where our rules have been breached. I welcome the update Universities UK has made to their agreement on fair admissions  practices which will help guide universities and colleges in this admissions cycle.

Most importantly, it is vital that students starting this autumn do not face further disappointment because the quality of their course is reduced by over-recruitment and poor organisation. Universities and colleges need to plan wisely to ensure that all students have a high-quality experience. The Office for Students will also use its powers to step in where this is not the case.

Great expectations

Key to this is being open with students about what they should expect. Our Discover Uni website provides students with data for prospective students, often based on recent years, and guidance on what to look for applying this year. But university and college websites must be upfront about what students should expect in 2021-22: how much time will they have in face-to-face lectures or tutorials; what practical learning experiences are involved; and what kind of self-guided study is expected.

Universities and colleges have adapted quickly to the challenges of the pandemic – often in innovative and ingenious ways. And it may be that there are changes to how courses are run thanks to digital innovations, for example adaptations to how lectures or seminars are delivered. Indeed, a recent report, "Gravity assist: propelling higher education towards a brighter future" by OfS chair, Sir Michael Barber, found that digital innovations sparked by the pandemic are likely have a long-term impact. 

It is important that students can make informed decisions and have a clear view about what they are signing up for. The challenge for universities and colleges is ensuring that have the capacity and resources to support all the students they recruit.

The burgeoning demand for higher education is a vote of confidence from students in the potentially life-changing benefits that – at their best – universities and colleges can provide. Universities and colleges must not abuse this trust by sacrificing quality for inflated intakes. Supporting the most disadvantaged students to succeed as they start their journey into higher education should be the number one priority. That is even more the case in the light of the disrupted teaching that many will have received over the last year because of the pandemic.

This generation of young people has had an extremely difficult year at such a critical juncture in their lives. They deserve the best that our higher education system has to offer in the next academic year. We will do all we can to ensure they get it.

Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of the Office for Students

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