Unconditional offers: Are universities guilty of 'pressure selling'?

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by Hayley Pearce | 29 Jan 2019

Office for Students: 'Unconditional offers not always in students' interests'

Some unconditional offers may amount to ‘pressure selling’ and be at risk of breaching consumer protection law, according to the latest Office for Students (OfS) briefing.

So-called ‘conditional unconditional offers’, which are only unconditional when applicants make them their firm choice, have come under fire for not being in students’ interests.

The OfS briefing says that it “will make clear where ‘pressure selling’ practices are at risk of breaching consumer protection law, and empower students to challenge this as well as taking regulatory action if appropriate.”

Students missing predicted grades

Students are now 30 times more likely to receive an unconditional offer than five years ago.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said: "We are concerned about the rapid rise in unconditional offers, particularly those with strings attached which are akin to pressure selling.

"It is plainly not in students' interests to push them to accept an offer that may not be their best option.”  

The OfS has published a report into the impact of unconditional offers on students’ decision making, which found that applicants who accept an unconditional offer are more likely to miss their predicted A-level grades by two or more grades.

But supporters of unconditional offers say that they benefit students by giving them certainty and confidence.

Do unconditional offers break the law?

The watchdog has now warned that applying “psychological pressure” or “creating an impression of urgency” in decision making could be a potential breach of consumer protection law.

A WonkHE article identified ways in which unconditional offers could be breaking the rules set out in the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which make unfair and aggressive practices unlawful.

These are:

  • Falsely stating that an offer will only be open for acceptance for a particular time, or will only remain available on certain terms for a certain time,
  • Providing distorted information about market conditions to get a consumer to purchase the service on terms that are less favourable than market conditions,
  • Significantly impairing a consumer’s freedom of choice through coercion or undue influence and it leads to the consumer entering into a transaction where he or she would not otherwise have done so, and
  • Materially distorting or being likely to distort the economic behaviour of the average consumer.

Factors that may be considered if courts need to decide if a university has breached the regulations include whether or not there is a ‘sector consensus’ on unconditional offers.

'Disturbing'

Education Secretary Damian Hinds called the steep rise in unconditional offers “disturbing."

He added: What I find particularly concerning is the OfS's finding of how many of those accepting unconditional offers then miss their predicted A-level grades, because if university didn't work out for that student it is those A-level grades they would fall back on.  

"That's why I am urging universities to use their offers responsibly and not just use unconditional offers to get students through the door."  

In a TSR thread about the regulation of unconditional offers, Moments said: “The whole idea of unconditional offers is ridiculous, they should only be given with a scholarship.”

And FloralHybrid thinks they should be scrapped entirely, apart from when a student applying post-qualification so has already met the conditions. 

She added: “If a university really likes you, they can give you a reduced a level offer. But people get lulled in by the unconditional aspect and think their A-levels don’t matter and it’s a silly way of universities trying to secure students’ funding.”

Universities 'after numbers'

ThomH97 says conditional unconditional offers should be disallowed: “I think it's up to the universities. But they should not be able to stipulate that you need to put them as a firm.

“If, for whatever reason, they decide you're a really good fit for their course and would sail through but don't need the pressure, then they can give an unconditional. However, to insist they be your firm just shows they are after numbers, and don't really care how you do.”

And swanseajack1 thinks that if unconditional offers were made by all universities, they would be acceptable.

He said: “I think the unconditional offer would be fine if everyone made them. At the moment they are being used to get people to choose them before other universities so universities can fill places.”

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