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Response to the Office for Students: The end of unconditional offers, but what’s the pandemic got to do with the OfS’s new power?

  • 3 July 2020
  • By Anon

An anonymous senior figure in an English university responds to the end of the Office for Students’s consultation on the integrity and stability of the English higher education sector .

A month after it was promised, the Office for Students (OfS) has published a response to its consultation on the new power it sought. The higher education sector should be pleased the OfS seems to have listened and is claiming a far narrower power than it had originally planned. But the OfS’s decision still throws up deeper issues. 

Consultation outcome

Instead of potentially applying to almost everything we do, the new condition (‘Z3’) will apply to ‘specified activities’, viz., ‘any form of advertising or marketing … which involves one higher education provider making statements (directly or indirectly) about one or more other higher education providers’ and ‘any type of’ unconditional offer. 

Unconditional offer ‘is defined … to include offers which are conditional but with very low attainment requirements.’ So there will be no return to the old Oxbridge EE offer. The new power will not be retrospective and will be in force from now until 30 September 2021 (and so last longer than the 12 months originally sought). 

Conditional unconditional offers are explicitly ‘prohibited in all circumstances’ but the condition applies to:

conduct … which, if repeated by other providers, is likely to have a material negative effect on the stability and/or integrity of the English Higher Education Sector (whether or not there is any form of express or tacit coordination, and whether or not a provider is able to anticipate the actions of other providers).’ (Emphasis added) 

Except for cases where applicants are required to ‘demonstrate abilities in a practical way’ – which are explicitly exempted – I think we can predict the end of all unconditional offer making.

As the OfS says, a ‘provider needs only to consider the possible negative effects on stability and integrity if other providers did follow suit.’ As the conceptual universe is overflowing with what is possible, it is unlikely that any university will argue that it is not possible that their unconditional offer-making will have negative effects. 

The regulation will also apply to ‘any activities of higher education providers in England that are registered with the OfS, irrespective of the location of where activities take place or have any effects’ (emphasis added) and it can be extended subject to another public consultation. 

It was time?

Many within and outside the sector will not lament the passing of unconditional offer-making. Whatever your views on their relative merits, they had become a stick with which to beat us long before the pandemic hit. But hang on; that’s a problem. The original consultation stated that ‘the conduct that the condition seeks to address is specific to the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic’. 

No one can plausibly claim that the problem of unconditional offers is ‘specific’ to the pandemic. And while there have been worries about the alleged 30,000 unconditional offers made in the first few days of the pandemic, the OfS’s power will not be retrospective. So these will stand. 

Indeed, given the current stage of the recruitment cycle, the new power will have marginal effect on 2020 recruitment. However, as it will last until 30 September 2021, it will apply through next year’s recruitment cycle. And, unless the OfS know something few others do, the new power will apply outside the pandemic. 

One cannot help feeling that the bucket of ordure that was poured over the OfS in response to their original consultation so staggered them that it has taken this long to think of a face-saving way to rescue something from a poorly-argued consultation. Even with grade inflation, it would have warranted no more than a 3rd

Still, one should not be ungenerous. The OfS may have done the sector a great favour. Unconditional offers are very much a collective action problem – if one university offers them, so must others. So a centrally-imposed rule is almost certainly the right approach. 

However, one can still legitimately worry about the consultation outcome. The OfS was not consulting on the acceptability of unconditional offers; it was consulting on pandemic-specific conduct. The OfS seems to have used the exercise as cover to do something it has wanted to do for a long time.

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