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WEEKEND READING: Re-assessing this week’s row on unconditional offers – and why it may all be a red herring

  • 28 March 2020

This week’s row over universities shifting applicants from conditional to unconditional offers is a distraction from the bigger and more important picture being painted by the current Covid-19 crisis, writes Nick Hillman.

There is a consensus across Government, the Office for Students and many commentators that recent offer-making behaviour by higher education institutions is outrageous and must be blocked.

In contrast to the impressive flexibility they have shown in response to other aspects of the current crisis, the Office for Students have now banned unconditional offers – at least temporarily – and have even threatened to ‘use any powers available to us’ to stop them.

Yet consensuses should always be tested against the evidence – crisis or no crisis – to ensure they are right and aimed at a worthwhile target. That is, after all, why Parliament protects ‘the freedom within the law of academic staff at English higher education providers to question and test received wisdom’.

The row seems a red herring, to me at least, for a number of reasons.

First, people with conditional offers who miss them are likely to find they can get a place at their chosen institution anyway. If institutions can’t shift a conditional offer to an unconditional one now, they can still let people in with lower grades than they originally planned once the results come out. You can just imagine the conversation, ‘You got BBC rather than our offer of BBB? What’s a grade or two between friends? Come and join us anyway?’ Such conversations have happened for years and will surely happen again this year.

Secondly, given this year’s exam results will be calculated completely differently, who could oppose universities being generous at that point? It would be unfair to punish this unlucky cohort of school leavers by having stricter university entry rules than normal. Having been told for years they will benefit from being part of a small cohort, they are now finding they are actually rather unlucky. No school prom. Even less robust school leaving results. And, now, last-minute tweaks to the rules on higher education admission after they have submitted their UCAS forms. That’s one helluva triple whammy. Perhaps we should cut them some slack?

Thirdly, it is easy to overdo the fear that an unconditional offer puts ‘pressure on worried students to accept courses that may not be in their best long-term interests.’ Unconditional offers can undoubtedly have that effect. In general, I am no great fan of them, especially the conditional unconditional ones. I worry they are sometimes designed to skew the decision making process of people who are, often, not yet even legally adults when making one of the most important decisions of their lives. Yet, sometimes, an unconditional offer can do the opposite: relieve pressure among worried students by letting them join courses that may very well be in their best long-term interests. It turns a known unknown into a known. This year, an unconditional offer might even help under-represented people reach higher education institutions previously out of their reach, rather as contextual offer-making has done in the past.

Incidentally, if blunt student number controls were to return, as some have called for and even predicted and which the crisis makes more likely, then this would operate in the opposite direction, making this newly-unlucky generation of students even unluckier. HEPI’s most recent report looks at the removal and backdoor reimposition of student number controls in Australia. The author’s conclusion is clear on which approach is better, describing demand-driven funding as ‘the best way’ of getting ‘places to universities, courses and students.’

Fourthly, the concerns of teachers about unconditional offers have much less force now. Teachers tend to say the single worst feature of unconditional offers is the encouragement they give ambitious sixth-formers to take their foot off the pedal, which in turn discourages the whole class. That is a strong argument; perhaps even a killer one against their widespread and long-term use. But it is irrelevant this year, when there is no more school and no exams to test applicants’ performance against. For most, there is no pedal left to press.

Fifthly, rather than the Office for Students having a panoply of powers at their disposal to affect admissions behaviour, it is not clear what powers they have to do this. The Higher Education and Research Act (2017), says neither the Office for Students nor the responsible Government Minister can restrict institutions’ autonomy on admissions.

Specifically, the legislation states:

  • ‘In performing its functions, the OfS [Office for Students] must have regard to—(a) the need to protect the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers’;
  • ‘“the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers” means— … (b) the freedom of English higher education providers— … (iii) to determine the criteria for the admission of students and apply those criteria in particular cases’; and
  • ‘the Secretary of State must have regard to the need to protect the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers.’

So institutions have autonomy, which is partly defined as autonomy over whom they admit, and both the Office for Students and the Government are obliged to ‘protect’ this. Laws can be changed, but not when Parliament is in Recess (and, besides, the House of Lords, in particular, has proved particularly supportive of protecting autonomy on admissions in the past).

Sixthly, assuming the announcement by the Westminster Government and the Office for Students has the force they want it to have, it can only apply in England, as they do not have jurisdiction on student issues elsewhere in the UK. The Government has said they would ‘welcome other [UK] nations to follow the same approach’ but, to put it mildly, their ability to enforce admissions behaviour outside England is extremely weak.

The range of challenges facing higher education institutions at the moment as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented in peacetime, certainly in recent history. Some may fall over financially and we are very likely to see big shifts in income, staffing, student numbers, research, estates and governance – in other words, in everything that determines the size and health of institutions.

In such a fast-changing world, our universities undoubtedly need support (just as other sectors do). But we should surely try to limit the negative effects as far as we can, including any fallout for young applicants.

I participated in a discussion on unconditional offers with Mary Curnock Cook, Jim Dickinson and Mark Leach as part of this week’s Wonkhe podcast special on the Covid-19 crisis, which is available here.


  1. Cath Brown says:

    Well said!

    The benefits of unconditionals (not the conditional variety) in making things a bit less anxiety-inducing in are often understated in normal times, let alone now. I’ve seen unconditionals be a real enabler for candidates to perform at their best.

    And I never really understood the alarmism about people taking their foot off the pedal – like quite a few others, I had a EE offer from one university but it didn’t make me (or my peers) decide we wanted to just get EE.

    Right now, unconditionals could really help a lot of people.


  2. Deborah Crook says:

    Thank goodness someone has been able to clearly think about this from in terms of the young people involved. My son was made an unconditional offer for the course he really wants to do and at a small university where family and school all agreed he will be able to thrive. HIS decision to accept it was not taken lightly. His grades (which might as well just be pulled out of a hat this year) are not what really counts – anyone really bothered about an education system that enables people to flourish knows that – it is interest in the course and a real desire to participate and develop capabilities that enable him to play his part in making this world a better place. We all have a chance in this crisis to rethink education and strive for something better, rather than hanging on to something already broken after years of serving those who already gain most from it.

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