Portsmouth defends ‘conditional unconditionals’ after minister’s rebuke

The University of Portsmouth said the controversial offers “can reduce stress, and support the transition from school to university” if used sensitively

The University of Portsmouth has robustly defended its use of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers in response to criticism from the minister for universities.

The letter from the minister, which said the use of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers amounted to “unethical admission practices”, was published in full by Michelle Donelan on Twitter.

Declining to respond directly to the minister’s notice, a Portsmouth spokesperson said the university “assumed that the letter was [a] private correspondence and we will continue to treat it as such”.

The university said ‘conditional unconditional’ offers were made “appropriately and sensitively according to an individual’s circumstances”.

Michelle Donelan sent the university a letter about its proclaimed use of conditional unconditional offers on 11 February.

The minister for higher and further education told Portsmouth vice-chancellor, Prof Graham Galbraith, of her “disappointment” that the university made offers that “put undue pressure on students by preying on their uncertainties”.

She called on Portsmouth to cease “use of this unjustifiable practice [sic] with immediate effect”.

The basis on which we make unconditional offers is exactly the same basis on which we make any offer: the potential to benefit from what we provide
– University of Portsmouth

The University of Portsmouth told University Business it “followed regulatory guidance in full when unconditional offer-making was prohibited. This prohibition lapsed on 30 September 2021 and has not been renewed or extended.”

During the pandemic, and under instruction from the Donelan, the Office for Students introduced a moratorium on conditional unconditional offers.

It said it is “opposed to the indiscriminate use of unconditional offers”, adding: “However, in the absence of any regulatory prohibition, and when used appropriately and sensitively according to an individual’s circumstances, unconditional offers can reduce stress, and support the transition from school to university.

“This is particularly the case for young people whose education has been so affected by the worst peacetime crisis this country has ever experienced.”

The university said it offers unconditional offer holders a £1,000 scholarship if they meet or exceed their predicted grades because “it is important that any unconditional offer does not affect a student’s motivations”.

“The basis on which we make unconditional offers is exactly the same basis on which we make any offer: the potential to benefit from what we provide,” the statement continued. “We make an unconditional offer at the point we conclude we have learned enough about a student to know that they have the ambition, potential and commitment to flourish on their chosen course.”

The minister has previously used Twitter to share letters drawing attention to her views and opinions: in December 2021, she urged universities to adopt the mental health charter, and in November 2021, she sought to remind vice-chancellors they “should not be limiting face-to-face learning, or other activities, based on Covid-19 restrictions”.

This is the first time she has drawn attention to a particular university – and vice-chancellor – in a letter shared publicly.

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