Conditional unconditional offers must end – Williamson

The education secretary has said the higher education sector should ‘get its house in order’

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has said the sector must “get its house in order” and scrap ‘conditional unconditional’ offers.

In his first major speech as education secretary, Mr Williamson made clear he wants to see an end to ‘conditional unconditional’ offers and a reduction in the number of unconditional offers.

During a speech at the Universities UK (UUK) conference in Birmingham, Mr Williamson said: “I’m delighted that some universities have already scrapped making so called ‘conditional unconditional’ offers. I hope, and I expect, that the rest are going to follow suit.”

Universities UK and OfS reviews of admissions are an opportunity for the sector to get its house in order
– Gavin Williamson

Speaking to journalists after the speech, Williamson said: “I don’t think there is any place for ‘conditional unconditional’ offers at all. I can’t see why any institution should be offering it.”

Although government ministers have long criticised the controversial offer-making practice, they have no direct power to ban it.

What is the difference between a ‘conditional unconditional’ and a conditional offer?

  • A ‘conditional unconditional’ offer is a promise of a place at university, but it has strings attached. Students’ offers only become ‘unconditional’ once they accept the university as their first choice.
  • A conditional offer is a promise of a place regardless of a students’ final grades.

Mr Williamson, who was appointed secretary of state for education on July 24 2019, welcomed the separate reports being conducted by Universities UK and the Office for Students (OfS) into offer-making practices.

The number of conditional offers has “shot up” from under 3000 in 2013 to nearly 76,000 last year, Mr Williamson said.

“Universities UK and OfS reviews of admissions are an opportunity for the sector to get its house in order, perhaps by agreeing a minimum predicted grade threshold or a maximum proportion of students who may be offered [a conditional offer],” he said.

Read more: University ‘conditional unconditional’ offers at record high – Ucas

In January 2019, the OfS said: “Universities and colleges must ensure that they are giving them the opportunity and freedom to make an informed choice. So-called pressure selling tactics – for example, applying psychological pressure, or creating an impression of urgency in decision making – could be a potential breach of consumer protection law.”

Mr Williamson said he will write to the Office for Students (OfS) on Monday to set out his priorities, which will include scrapping ‘conditional unconditional’ offers,  curbing the use of conditional offers and tackling grade inflation.

On grade inflation, Mr Williamson said: “In order to maintain our reputation, students need to be reassured that their degree will be worth something, that will give them the knowledge and the skills they need to achieve whatever goals that they set themselves.”

Going to university “has to be seen as a good investment” for students, he added.

A ComRes poll, commissioned by UUK, found that only one in three students and recent graduates decided to go to university to get a higher salary and 84% agreed that there were other important factors that influenced their decision to go to university.

In her keynote speech, UUK president Prof Julie Buckingham, said: “Graduate recruiters say that the questions today’s graduates ask at the end of job interviews are more focused on ‘What is the culture like and how will you support me?’ rather than ‘What will you pay me?’ with wellbeing, personal development, diversity and civic responsibilities highly prized.”

A spokesperson for UUK said: “Students deserve to have qualifications which they can take pride in, and employers and the wider public need to have confidence in the results students achieve.

“This commitment was shown by the overwhelming support for the recent sector-wide statement of intent which maps out a framework for action and we know that institutions are already taking action to review their processes and data.

“It is important not to forget that students working harder, improvements in teaching, investment in academic support and widening participation initiatives are also all leading to legitimate grade improvement and such improvements are to be celebrated.”

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