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Regulator bans controversial ‘conditional unconditional’ offers during pandemic

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@officestudents and @michelledonelan comment on regulator’s ban of controversial ‘conditional unconditional’ offers during pandemic

University offers which only become unconditional once an applicant accepts them as their firm choice will be prohibited until September 2021, under new rules announced by the Office for Students (OfS) today.

Making any of these so-called ‘conditional unconditional’ offers would put a university in breach of a new regulatory condition and could result in a fine of up to – or in some cases beyond – £500,000 per breach.

The condition is designed to prevent the use of unconditional offers and advertising practices which could have serious negative consequences for students or for the stability or integrity of England’s higher education sector. It expressly prohibits any university from giving out ‘conditional unconditional’ offers and making false or misleading statements about others with the intention of discouraging students from attending those universities. The condition is a temporary response to the coronavirus pandemic, with a fixed end date.

The new condition has been introduced following a consultation exercise with the higher education sector and others.

Respondents to the consultation asked for more clarity about the kind of conduct the condition covered. The scope of the condition has now been narrowed to focus on unconditional offers and marketing activity, with examples of acceptable and unacceptable practice specified.

Consultation responses also expressed concern that the OfS would be able to take enforcement action in relation to conduct that predated the consultation. Given these concerns and the fact that offer-making has been stable during the consultation period, this retrospectivity has now been removed.

Unconditional offers are a normal part of the admissions cycle when it comes to applicants who already have their qualifications, creative courses where portfolios and auditions are deemed more important than predicted grades, and adult learners who can demonstrate relevant prior learning that may not take the form of academic qualifications. Unconditional offers for any of these purposes – as well as for private A-level candidates who will not receive calculated grades this year – are still permitted under the new regulations.

However, a sharp increase in conditional unconditional offers in recent years has prompted concerns that these offers could destabilise the system, and put undue pressure on students to accept an easy offer that may not be in their best interests.

The new condition also expressly permits universities to make contextual offers – where students from disadvantaged or underrepresented groups are admitted with lower grades than the advertised entry requirements, in recognition of the varying contexts in which results are achieved. This could be even more important amid changes to exams this year, which may disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged students. Financial support for the most disadvantaged students – including for IT resources – and outreach to support their transition into higher education do not fall within the scope of the new condition and are therefore not subject to any new OfS regulation.

Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of the OfS, said:

“We have previously highlighted that unconditional offers which are conditional on students accepting a university or college as their first choice put pressure on students and distort their decision making. Widespread use of unconditional offers also risks destabilising the system. Our concerns are even more acute in these exceptional times with the shape of the next few months and years still very unpredictable, and information, advice and guidance less readily available than it may normally be.

“However, we have ensured that the condition explicitly permits unconditional and contextual offers that are clearly in students’ interests, and which support the transition into higher education for the most disadvantaged students. 

“Students can also be reassured that they should not expect to have any offers that they have already received withdrawn, and where there are good reasons for them to receive an unconditional or contextual offer in future, there is no reason that this cannot go ahead.

“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. 

“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.”

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said:

“There is no justification for conditional unconditional offers and I welcome the strong action against these potentially damaging practices while the sector navigates this uncertain period, and hope to see this continue beyond 2021.  

“I do not want students to be taken advantage of and feel pressured into making a major life decision which might not be right for them.

“The OfS and Government are working closely together to tackle low quality higher education and stamp out bad practices such as conditional unconditional offers.”


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