Stop making unconditional offers because of Covid-19 – Office for Students

The chief executive of the university regulator said universities should heed the recent announcement from the government on A-level results

Stop making unconditional offers because of coronavirus, the Office for Students (OfS) has told universities and colleges.

Some higher education providers have reportedly offered students unconditional offers because of uncertainty around A-levels. On Wednesday 18 March, the government announced that summer examinations would not go ahead because of Covid-19.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson announced today that exam boards would instead award students’ grades based on their teacher predictions.

Mr Williamson said: “The exam boards will be asking teachers, who know their students well, to submit their judgement about the grade that they believe the student would have received if exams had gone ahead.”

“There will also be an option to sit an exam early in the next academic year for students who wish to,” the education secretary added.

Following what she described as Mr Williamson’s “useful and important” announcement, OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge said universities should stop offering students unconditional offers because of the decision to cancel A-level exams.

“Some universities and colleges have in recent days reportedly been making unconditional offers that may not be in students’ best interests.

“We are today asking that all universities and colleges pause unconditional or other offers that could disadvantage students given today’s reassurances there is no reason to depart from the normal admissions processes. All universities and colleges should work to put the student’s interest first,” the regulator-in-chief said.

Ms Dandridge continued: “We want to assure those students that their grades will be equally valid to those in previous years, and their hard work will be rewarded and fairly recognised.

“We are working with universities, colleges and UCAS to ensure that students are supported throughout this unique admissions cycle and made aware of their higher education course options.

“Particular consideration will need to be given to students from disadvantaged backgrounds to ensure that their potential is properly recognised as the new system is rolled out.”

We are today asking that all universities and colleges pause unconditional or other offers that could disadvantage students
– Nicola Dandridge, OfS

‘We decided to take decisive action to support our applicants’

The universities that have allegedly offered students the promise of places because of coronavirus include Edge Hill, Essex, York St John, Liverpool Hope and Liverpool John Moores.

University Business has contacted include Edge Hill, Essex, York St John, Liverpool Hope and Liverpool John Moores for statements.

Despite the the OfS’s warning, Birmingham City University (BCU) released a statement which said it would continue offering unconditional offers.

Prof Clare Mackie, deputy vice-chancellor at BCU, said the decision “provides hundreds of students with much needed certainty in these uncertain times”.

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.”

In a statement released after the OfS’s warning, a spokesperson for Liverpool Hope said the university would not heed the warning of the regulator.

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.”

Matthew Taylor, director of student recruitment and admissions at York St John University, said: “Following Wednesday’s announcement about the cancellation of exams, we decided to take decisive action to support our applicants in these unprecedented times. 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.

“However, for the time being, this does not include courses with statutory requirements. We are taking this unprecedented action with the aim of removing uncertainty for students at a time of huge anxiety.

“We also felt that this was the best way of maintaining our excellent record in supporting people from backgrounds which are under-represented at universities, as they are often the people who are the least well served in terms of advice and guidance.”

Vanessa Potter, director of communications at the University of Essex, said: “We know there has been a lot of controversy about unconditional offers, and they are something we have not chosen to use previously, as we are concerned that they can put unfair pressure on students.

“However, this is an exceptional time, and we wanted, in our small way, 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.

“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.

“Now we can focus on providing students who choose Essex with all the support, advice and learning resources they need to get off to a flying start with us in October.”

What will the government’s announcement mean for students?

Earlier this week, former Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook quipped on Twitter: “Is Coronavirus going to turn this year’s confirmation and clearing into one big Unconditional offer?’

The statement from Mr Williamson said the government hoped to have a system in place by July – but this would still have implications for how universities undertake clearing, the former Ucas chief executive said.

In a snap poll run this afternoon on The Student Room, close to 64% of students felt the process of awarding A-levels using predicted results would not give them a fair grade.

Pete Langley, director of Study Help at The Student Room, said: “It’s a really anxious time for students but at least they now know that they will actually receive grades this summer. And that those grades will be the result of teacher predictions supported by extensive data analysis. What’s really important is that every student keeps working to try and influence those grade predictions. They should follow the advice of their teachers and if they’re not sure what that is they should get in touch with their school or college.

“If students feel a grade is unfair there will be an appeals process and an opportunity to take an exam in the autumn. Every student should feel confident that colleges, universities and employers will be aware of the difficulty of the situation and will look sympathetically on students who were due to take exams this summer.”

Students on Twitter announce unconditional offers

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