Dandridge gets tough: OfS issues warning over Covid-19 unconditional offers

The Office for Students wants universities to stop offering unconditional offers to students while Ofqual decides how to award A-level results this summer

The Office for Students (OfS) will use regulatory powers to stop universities making unconditional offers to applicants because of Covid-19.

In a statement released yesterday evening (Monday 23 March), OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge threatened to “use any powers available” to stop universities recruiting students with unconditional offers during the coronavirus crisis, after it was reported that some would not heed her earlier warnings.

She said while higher education providers are “understandably concerned” about the impact of coronavirus on student recruitment, it was “quite wrong for any university or college to respond to the coronavirus crisis by making unconditional offers that may put pressure on worried students to accept courses that may not be in their best long-term interests”.

Universities minister warns unconditional offers destabilise admissions system

The warning from Ms Dandridge echoes comments from universities minister Michelle Donelan, who yesterday urged universities “to maintain the stability of the university admissions system” while Ofqual decide how to award students A-level grades.

The Department for Education has given Ofqual two weeks to devise a way to award students A-level grades based on their predicted results.

According to the Department for Education (DfE) “since exams were cancelled – including A-levels, BTECs and other Level 3 qualifications – a small number of universities have changed a significant proportion of their offers to undergraduate students from ‘conditional’ to ‘unconditional’ in a bid to secure their attendance for the 2020/21 academic year.

“This practice risks destabilising the admissions system, increasing financial uncertainty and volatility for all institutions at a time when universities are already facing significant pressures.”

Those universities allegedly include Birmingham City, Edge Hill, Essex, York St John, Liverpool Hope and Liverpool John Moores.

Ms Donelan urged all higher education providers “to refrain from changing existing offers to unconditional offers as it risks destabilising the entire admissions systems”. The moratorium on unconditional offers will be in place until a way forward on A-level results can be found.

I want to make it very clear… we will use any powers available to us to prevent such offer making on the grounds that it is damaging to students and not in their interests
– Nicola Dandridge, OfS

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‘It is damaging to students and not in their interests’

The OfS first told universities to “pause” unconditional offers because of the coronavirus crisis on Friday 19 March. Ms Dandridge told the sector last week that “there is no reason to depart from the normal admissions processes” because A-level exams had been cancelled and schools shut over coronavirus.

She repeated those points in a statement yesterday night and added: “The exams regulator Ofqual is rapidly developing a fair way of issuing A-level grades which should provide reassurance to students and will also mean that there is no reason to rush decisions.

“Given Ofqual’s work, universities and colleges have no reason to be making these offers in response to the current situation.

“I want to make it very clear to any university or college – and its leaders and governors – that if any university or college makes unconditional offers or adjusts any offer to students during this two week moratorium we will use any powers available to us to prevent such offer making on the grounds that it is damaging to students and not in their interests.”

Universities UK chief executive Alistair Jarvis welcomed the statements from Ms Dandridge and Ms Donelan and said he was confident “universities will respond positively to ensure that no student feels rushed into a decision at what is already a difficult time”.

‘Many young people have been left feeling anxious about their futures’

Hours after Ms Dandridge’s warning on Friday 19 March, some universities told University Business that they would continue to offer unconditional offers because of coronavirus.

Prof Clare Mackie, deputy vice-chancellor at Birmingham City University (BCU), told University Business that the university would carry on regardless.

She continued: “Many young people have been left feeling anxious about their futures after it was announced exams would be cancelled, but we want to make sure that the Covid-19 pandemic is no barrier to future study, education and achievement.

“GCSE grades often present a strong picture of a student’s ability and we want to demonstrate our commitment to those who have planned on coming to study with us, by acknowledging their previous academic achievements.

“This pandemic is a global issue, but we have a duty to play our part in supporting both our current, and prospective, students as much as we can during this period.”

Similarly, a spokesperson for Liverpool Hope said the university would offer unconditional offers despite the regulator’s pleas.

The spokesperson said: “In this time of apprehension and concern, we want to offer some reassurance and positivity to our prospective students.

“We have therefore taken the decision as an institution to change existing conditional offers to unconditional for the vast majority of our courses.

“Hope will also let students register on campus early so that they can familiarise themselves with formal study after what may be a long period of time away. That measure will be free to the student.

“And we will also let students transfer to a degree with a foundation year if they don’t feel ready or prepared to go straight into the first year of degree.”

York St John University launched a university-wide policy on unconditional offers after exams were cancelled on Wednesday 18 March and took what it described as “decisive action to support our applicants in these unprecedented times”.

Matthew Taylor, York St John’s director of student recruitment and admissions at York St John University, said: “For one year only, we are removing the academic requirements for UK applicants for September 2020 undergraduate entry.

“This applies to those who have already had an offer from us, based on their expected grades, and was done with the unanimous support of our partner schools.”

Places at York St John may have to be paused following Ms Dandridge’s comments, but it is not yet clear if the university will stop the policy all together.

The University of Essex, which has not used unconditional offers before, said it changed its policies “to try and provide reassurance to our applicants as we know how distressing uncertainty caused by the Government’s decision to cancel exams will be for some young people”.

Vanessa Potter, director of communications at the University of Essex, added: “We also know the decision made to shut schools will mean a long break before they join us in the autumn. As a result, we have also announced we’ll be providing a range of online learning materials and support for all of our new incoming undergraduate students, so they can spend some time preparing to start their courses.”

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