Universities have been told to stop making “conditional unconditional” offers and prevent students making choices that are not “in their best interests”.
Universities UK, the body which represents Britain’s higher education institutions, published its code of practice on fair admissions on Monday following an 18-month review.
The code sets out how processes must “support student choice” and avoid creating “unnecessary pressure” on applicants.
It advises universities against making conditional unconditional offers to students, or offers with significantly lower grade requirements based on applicants making their institution a firm choice.
Conditional unconditional offers give students a place regardless of their A-level grades, on the condition that they make the university their firm first choice.
The practice has been widely criticised over concerns that it demotivates students from working hard for their A-level grades and fulfilling their potential.
It was banned by the Office for Students, the higher education regulator in England, from Jul 2020 to Sep 2021, following reports that students were inundated with unconditional offers in the wake of A-levels being cancelled during the pandemic.
Curbs on student incentives
Data published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) in 2020 showed that in 2019, there were 35 universities and colleges where at least one per cent of offers made were conditional unconditional.
A Ucas survey of more than 30,000 students in 2019 found that more than half of applicants had received an offer with an incentive to select a university as their first choice.
Incentives may include offers of guaranteed accommodation or cash payments, bursaries or scholarships.
Universities UK said institutions that signed up to the new code of practice should not make conditional unconditional offers and should use unconditional offers only in limited circumstances, for example, where admissions are informed by interviews or auditions.
The code adds that universities must also make sure incentives do not place “undue pressure on the decisions that applicants make, or the timescales in which they should make them”.
Universities will be expected to sign the code, but it will not be compulsory. A cross-sector group will evaluate how effective the code is following its publication.
‘Putting applicants’ needs first’
Prof Quintin McKellar, the vice-president for England and Northern Ireland at Universities UK, said: “The Fair Admissions Code of Practice allows universities and colleges to make a public commitment to prioritise applicants’ interests above all else.
“All applicants must be able to make informed decisions based on clear evidence of their strengths, capability and potential, and on comprehensive and consistent information about how courses will meet their expectations, as future students and in their lives beyond graduation.”
Michelle Donelan, the higher education minister, said: “These changes really help to put university applicants’ needs first. Prospective students should expect clarity from the provider and the course about quality, transparency and fair access.
“I have long called for these much-needed changes to the admissions process, such as increased transparency in advertising, and also called out the use of conditional unconditional offers which only really benefit the university or college.
“This code highlights the undue pressure this places on applicants to make a decision which may not be in their best interests.”
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that it welcomed the “absolute clarity with which it reinforces the message that the use of so-called ‘conditional unconditional offers’ is unacceptable”.
“Indeed, the vast majority of unconditional offers are unnecessary and do not serve students’ best interests, as this code recognises,” he added.