How Banning University Unconditional Offers Will Affect Applicants

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With plans for banning university unconditional offers for university places the higher education watchdog, The Office for Students (OfS), is to launch a major review later this year into the university admissions system, according to a recent article in The Telegraph by Camilla Turner, education editor.

Eliminate ‘pressure selling’ of unconditional offers

Concerns have been raised by ministers in respect of universities who might have been engaging in “unethical” practises such as “pressure selling” unconditional offers to students.

Although the OfS does not have a remit to dictate how individual universities assess applicants and therefore make their offers, the Ofs does have the power to review, and if necessary revise the structure in which the admissions system operates.

Any such review will need to look at the advantages and disadvantages, for both students and universities, of amending the present application system.

They would be able to review whether employing a system which defers offering places until actual results are know, meaning students would apply to university once being informed of their A-level results.

This would remove the current step in the procedure whereby any institution can make an unconditional offer to a student, which can create a negative impact upon their grades.

Clearly a student with a guaranteed unconditional offer place would be sorely tempted to throttle-back on their work for the remainder of their school-terms.

Affects state and private schools equally

This issue is one which has an impact upon both state schools and private schools. Each sector is aiming to help as many pupils as possible to secure appropriate post 18 education, however, with many offers being ‘locked-out’ prior to A-level results day the current system can create an unlevel playing field.

Stop reliance upon unrealistic predicted grades model

In banning university unconditional offers they would also solve the issue of unreliable predicted grades, where universities complain that teachers make unrealistic forecasts about what students are capable of achieving.

Furthermore, where students are working and revising up until their exams it’s quite often the case that their actual grade is better than the one predicted, but that predicted lower grade is the one currently being used by universities when considering making an offer.

This issue was previously considered by UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, in 2012, but was forced to shelve the idea.

They were advised by University leaders that such a revision to the procedure would put too much pressure on admissions tutors by forcing them to consider hundreds of thousands of applications in just a few weeks over the summer.

However, with the steady increase in unconditional offers, this issue is one which begets a further review.

Students are now 30 times more likely to receive an unconditional offer than five years ago.

Damian Hinds, the education secretary, said on Monday that he welcomes the review, adding that the rise in unconditional offers “may be symptomatic of wider issues within university admissions processes”.

In a letter to Sir Michael Barber, the chair of the OFS, he said: “There is a need to establish whether current admissions processes serve the best interests of students”.

The lifting of student number controls in England in 2015 gave universities free rein to recruit as many undergraduates as they see fit – but the move has led to accusations that they now act like businesses, seeking to maximise their revenue by recruiting as many students as possible.

Fierce competition has emerged between universities to attract students, with sixth form pupils now offered places regardless of their exam results.

“Incentivised offers”

Some institutions hand out “incentivised” offers, where they tell students that their offer will be unconditional but only if they accept it as their first choice university.

The universities watchdog has previously warned that applying “psychological pressure” or “creating an impression of urgency” in decision making could be a potential breach of consumer protection law.

The OfS published a report in January that examined the impact of unconditional offers on students’ decision making. It found that applicants who accept an unconditional offer are more likely to miss their predicted A-level grades by two or more grades.

Headteachers have been increasingly concerned about the impact that unconditional offers have on student motivation and achievement.

They have complained that students who are awarded unconditional offers “take their foot off the gas” because they are no longer concerned about their grades.

The regulator’s admissions review will be launched this autumn, and is due to be completed in 2020.

Universities UK has said it is working with UCAS to review guidance on unconditional offers. “It is essential that admissions processes and policies are fair and transparent, underpinned by clear criteria and in the best interest of students,” they said.

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