Universities and colleges must keep the promises they make to students during this year’s admissions cycle and not end up ‘sacrificing quality for inflated intakes’, the chief executive of the Office for Students (@OfficeStudents) has warned today (17 Mar).

Writing in her article "The year ahead: What students can expect from the OfS", Nicola Dandridge says:

“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.

“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.”

The OfS has powers to intervene where there are issues about the teaching and support universities and colleges provide to their students. This may include:

  • a course not being delivered in the way students had expected – for example, unexpected changes to what is taught, or concerns about the quality of teaching, the availability of resources or the fairness of assessment
  • academic support not being available in the way students had expected – for example, a university or college’s personal tutoring system not working effectively and in the way set out in the course handbook, or significant and unexpected reductions in contact hours or course content.

The OfS monitors universities and colleges throughout the year. Students, staff, and members of the public may also send the regulator notifications if they have concerns.

UCAS data shows a significant rise in the number of applicants this year, with record proportions of UK 18-year-olds applying to start university this year. In this context, universities must also continue to meet their commitments on improving access and participation.

Nicola Dandridge writes: 

“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.”

Ms Dandridge also emphasised the need for applicants to make informed decisions over the coming months without undue pressure from universities or colleges:

“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. 

Data released last week shows that there has been progress in closing a number of access and participation gaps, including for access to higher education for students from the most underrepresented neighbourhoods:

  1. There was a gap of 19.2 percentage points between students from the most and least represented neighbourhoods in 2019-20, down from 19.5 percentage points in 2018-19. In 2019-20, 8.0 per cent of students were from the least represented areas, compared to 27.3 per cent of students from the most represented areas.
  2. Black students were less likely than white students to gain a first or upper second-class degree at 96 of the 97 universities and colleges considered in the analysis. At some, the gap in attainment was more than 20 percentage points. The overall gap in attainment has closed from 24.7 percentage points in 2015-16 to 18.3 percentage points in 2019-20.

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