Education secretary tells 23 universities to stop ‘pressure-selling’ with conditional unconditional offers

by Hayley Pearce | 8 Apr 2019

‘Unconditional if firm’ offers harm A-level grades and may be unlawful, says Damian Hinds

Education secretary Damian Hinds has told 23 universities to stop making ‘conditional unconditional’ offers to students.

So-called ‘unconditional if firm’ offers, whereby universities pledge to make offers unconditional if the student makes the course their first choice, are potentially unlawful, he said.

They are also accused of harming student attainment and damaging the reputation of universities.

Mr Hinds said a full review of university admissions was needed to end "unacceptable" practices, and the Department for Education says universities employing these tactics could be breach consumer protection laws designed to protect people from pressure selling.

Unethical

Mr Hinds said: "It is simply unacceptable for universities to adopt pressure-selling tactics, which are harming students’ grades in order to fill places. It is not what I expect to see from our world-class higher education institutions.

“‘Conditional unconditional’ offers are damaging the reputation of the institutions involved and our world-leading sector as a whole. That is why I will be writing to 23 universities, urging them to stamp out this unethical practice.”

He has recommended a review of admissions to be carried out by the Office for Students (OfS), which in January warned universities that pressured students into accepting unconditional offers they may be in breach of consumer law, and risk fines or deregistration.

Missing grades

The DfE said that in 2018, 34.4% of 18-year-olds from England, Northern Ireland and Wales – which is equivalent to 87,540 people – received some form of unconditional offer, up from 1.1 per cent in 2013.

The University of Roehampton made 1,940 conditional unconditional offers, constituting 65.8% of all the offers it made to 18-year-olds.

UCAS data last year showed that students who accepted unconditional offers, whether ‘conditional’ or not, were 7% more likely to miss their predicted A-levels by two grades than students with conditional offers. 

23 universities

The universities that Mr Hinds is writing to about their use of conditional unconditional offers in the 2018 recruitment cycle are: 

  • University of Roehampton
  • Loughborough College
  • Kingston University
  • Sheffield Hallam University
  • University of Brighton
  • Birmingham City University
  • Nottingham Trent University
  • Bournemouth University
  • Staffordshire University
  • University of Lincoln
  • University of Hertfordshire
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Oxford Brookes University
  • Lancaster University
  • University of Birmingham
  • Middlesex University
  • University of Derby
  • University of West London
  • City, University of London
  • Keele University
  • University of Kent
  • Aston University, Birmingham
  • University of Surrey

    Providers that have announced they will no longer make unconditional offers include:
     
  • St Mary's University, Twickenham
  • University of Nottingham
  • University of Sussex

A Universities UK statement said: “There are clear benefits for students in universities being able to use a variety of offer-making practices that reflect the individual student’s circumstances and potential.

“It is essential that admissions processes and policies are fair and transparent, underpinned by clear criteria and in the best interest of students.”

Student choice

Responding to comments from the Education Secretary on conditional unconditional offers, Clare Marchant, chief executive of UCAS, said: “Students’ best interests must be the paramount consideration for universities and colleges when making offers. It’s essential that students are supported to make informed choices and the right decisions about their future.”

She added: “We welcome the review of admissions practices and look forward to continuing our work with the Office for Students as the review’s scope and remit is shaped. There needs to be a clear objective that any recommendations put the interests of students first, working with teachers, universities and colleges.”

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said: “Our research on unconditional offers highlighted that indiscriminate use of the practice could amount to pressure selling and put universities in breach of consumer law.

“It is not in students’ interests to push them into decisions that may not be right for them, and admissions practices are clearly not working if they are having a negative impact on students’ choices or outcomes.

“As we announced in January, we plan to bring together a range of parties – including the Department for Education, UCAS, students, higher education providers, schools and employers – to consult on the admissions system and ensure it works in all students’ interests.”

‘Cheated’

In a TSR thread about Damian Hinds’ latest stand against unconditional offers, Izzythestudent said she decided not to accept her own ‘unconditonal if firm’ offer: “Falmouth did this to me. Needless to say I did not firm them. I think it’s very sneaky; if they really wanted me that badly, they would have just given me the unconditional. Made me feel cheated.”

And Acsel said they should be banned: “Just do away with ‘unconditional if firm’ offers altogether. There's nothing wrong with offering unconditionals when they're deserved, but adding a stipulation that they only apply if firmed is nothing more than a marketing technique. Sure, I guess it has the benefit of removing some of the pressure on the student. But that has negative impacts as well and really people need to be able to cope under pressure.

“I cannot think of a single legitimate reason for ‘unconditional if firm’ to exist. A student does not magically become more deserving of an unconditional just because they firmed. If there are conditional requirements, those conditions exist whether someone firms or not. End of story.”

Themysticalegg agreed, saying: “I just see unconditional offers as peer pressure tactics to attract vulnerable A-level students who are scared of not doing as well as expected, and want certainty so they will take the offer even if it's not the best choice for them and they should be abolished.”

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