New code aims to stop universities making ‘conditional unconditional’ offers

The new code of practice aims to prevent universities putting ‘pressure’ on applicants to accept places through incentives.

07 March 2022

A new code of practice for universities will aim to stop the practice of making “conditional unconditional” offers for good to avoid students making choices that are not “in their best interests”.

Following an 18-month review that began in June 2019, Universities UK (UUK) published its code of practice on fair admissions on Monday, setting out how processes must “support student choice” and avoid creating “unnecessary pressure” on applicants.

It advises that universities should not make “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 condition they make the university their firm first choice.

The practice was banned by the Office for Students from July 2020 to September 2021.

On Monday, Universities UK said that institutions which signed up to the new code of practice should not make “conditional unconditional” offers and should only use unconditional offers in limited circumstances, for example where admissions are informed by interviews or auditions.

Universities would also be able to make unconditional offers where students already hold the required grades for the course, require special consideration because of mitigating circumstances such as illness, or where they are applying to a university where non-selective admissions is a core part of the institution’s founding purpose.

Data published by Ucas in 2020 showed that in 2019 there were 35 universities and colleges where at least 1% of offers made were “conditional unconditional”.

The practice has been widely criticised over concerns that it demotivates students from working hard for their A-level grades and fulfilling their potential.

UUK’s code states 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”.

Incentives may include offers of guaranteed accommodation, or cash payments, bursaries or scholarships. A Ucas survey of over 30,000 students in 2019 found that over half of applicants had received an offer with an incentive to select a university as their first choice.

Out of students offered incentives, 56% said they were told the university would change the conditional offer to unconditional while 30% were promised guaranteed accommodation.

The code states that universities must also use clear language in their admissions policies to make them as transparent as possible for pupils and ensure their processes widen access for pupils of all backgrounds.

The code did not adopt all recommendations from the Fair Admissions Review. The review suggested that minimum entry requirements be introduced for candidates who were made contextual offers based on their socio-economic background but the code has not included this, although it advises that universities must be clear and transparent about how contextual offers are used.

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.

Professor Quintin McKellar, UUK’s vice-president for England and Northern Ireland, and chairman of the Fair Admissions Review, 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.”

Cabinet Meeting
Minister for Higher and Further Education Michelle Donelan has welcomed the new code (Aaron Chown/PA)

Minister for Higher and Further Education Michelle Donelan 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.

“The Office for Students is also introducing new minimum thresholds for drop-out rates and progression to graduate jobs, so that students will know with confidence that their course will open opportunities to good jobs.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that they 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.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said: “We welcome the publication of this code of practice, which rightly says that students’ interests should be front and centre in decisions around admissions.

“We particularly support calls for the end to ‘conditional unconditional offers’. These offers risk pressurising students into accepting places which might not be right for them, and the OfS banned them during the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic.

“We welcome the leadership of Universities UK and Guild HE in this area, and would strongly support universities and colleges signing up to the code and abiding by its principles. While universities and colleges rightly decide which individual students to admit, the OfS remains willing to consider further regulatory interventions if providers continue to use admissions practices that are unfair.”

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