Coronavirus: Universities warned over rush to unconditional offers

The universities regulator has said it will use “any powers available” to prevent institutions from switching students’ offers to unconditional in the wake of the government’s cancellation of this summer’s exam series.

Following the announcement last week that GCSE and A-level grades will be based on teacher assessment this year, the Department for Education warned that a small number of universities have changed “a significant proportion” of their offers to undergraduate students from ‘conditional’ to ‘unconditional’.

Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of the Office for Students, said it would be “quite wrong” for any university to respond to the coronavirus crisis by making offers “that may undermine the sustainability of the university system and increase the financial pressure on other providers”.

Michelle Donelan (pictured), the universities minister, has demanded a two-week moratorium on unconditional offers, warning that changing offers at this stage “risks destabilising the entire admissions systems”.

“I am asking for a two week pause while we work with the sector over this period on admissions arrangements,” she said.

It follows moves by the government to clamp down on the use of unconditional offers, which has increased substantially in recent years. School and college leaders are concerned the offers discourage students from working hard during their final year.

Donelan said the country faced “unprecedented circumstances”, but that it was “essential that we create a period of stability for both students and universities”.

“As universities seek to secure attendance for the next academic year, I would ask them to refrain from changing existing offers to unconditional offers as it risks destabilising the entire admissions systems,” she said.

Dandridge, who has been vocal in her opposition to the inappropriate use of unconditional offers, said many universities and colleges were responding to coronavirus “with innovation and ingenuity”.

“But it is critical that every university and college puts the student’s interest first in these difficult times,” she added.

“So, I want to make it very clear to any university or college – and its leaders and governors – that if any university or college adjusts any offer to students, or make any unconditional offers, 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.”

Alistair Jarvis, the chief executive of universities industry body Universities UK, said the institutions were “doing all that they can to support students with great examples across the country. It is important that these efforts are not undermined by inappropriate admissions practices increasing worry and pressure for applicants.”

The DfE said students who accept an unconditional offer will be able to release themselves as part of the UCAS self-release process to explore other options during clearing. The process was introduced last year and almost 30,000 students used it.

Admissions service UCAS has also announced that it will extend the deadline for pupils to make decisions on their offers by two weeks. The deadline is usually early May.