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Universities 'pressure-selling' place offers to school-leavers

Universities in England making “indiscriminate” unconditional offers to potential students may fall foul of consumer legislation against

“pressure selling”, the sector’s regulator warned as it launched a consultation on admissions. 

The Office for Students (OfS) said it was particularly concerned at the growth of so-called “conditional unconditional offers” in recent years, which see universities giving students guaranteed places only if they name that university as their first choice. “So-called pressure selling tactics - for example, applying psychological pressure, or creating an impression of urgency in decision making - could be a potential breach of consumer protection law,” the OfS said in a report into the effects of separating offers from A-level grades. “We will make clear where ‘pressure selling’ practices are at risk of breaching consumer law, and empower students to challenge this as well as taking regulatory action ourselves if appropriate.” 

The comments came as the regulator published its own research into the upsurge in unconditional offers made by universities in England, which have risen sharply since the government removed the institutional cap on undergraduate places four years ago. According to the OfS, the number of offers with an unconditional component made to school-leavers rose from 3,000 in 2013 to 117,000 in 2018. 

Figures published by the Ucas admissions service last month showed that one in three 18-year-olds applying for university places in England, Wales and Northern Ireland this year received some form of unconditional offer. The OfS’s remit only extends to higher education in England. 

The use of the offers - instead of conditional offers that require applicants to achieve specific A-level or other exam results - have been criticised by schools for removing the incentive for pupils to achieve their best performance. But some universities say it helps integrate potential students earlier in the process, as while as lessening stress. 

The OfS’s research said there was as yet no statistically significant difference in drop-out rates between school-leavers admitted with unconditional offers and those who entered with conditional offers. But it did suggest that around 1,000 sixth formers in one year had lower than expected A-level grades as a result of accepting unconditional offers. The explosion in unconditional offers has led to calls, most recently by the Universities and Colleges Union, for an overhaul of the university admissions system so that students applied after receiving their exam results, and so do away with conditional and unconditional offers. 

Nicola Dandridge, the OfS’s chief executive, said the issue raised wider questions about whether the admissions system could cope with “an era of intense competition” between universities. “On this question, the OfS will bring together a range of parties - including the Department for Education, Ucas, students, higher education providers, schools and employers - to consult on how the admissions system can best achieve the goal of providing every student with a fulfilling experience of higher education,” Dandridge said. 

Damian Hinds, the education secretary for England, said he was disturb by the steep rise in the use of unconditional offers. “I believe that widespread use of these offers is not in the best interests of students, who should be encouraged to reach their full potential,” Hinds said.“I am urging universities to use their offers responsibly and not just use unconditional offers to get students through the door. 

Where institutions cannot justify the rising numbers being offered I have made clear to the Office for Students that they should use the full range of powers at their disposal to take action.” The OfS said that students from disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to receive unconditional offers, but said it was because they were more likely to apply to universities that made them, rather than being deliberately targeted. 

 “If we identify cases where unconditional offers are having an obvious negative impact on students’ choices or outcomes, we are of course prepared to intervene,” Dandridge said. 

 Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, said it was “deeply concerning” to see the surge in unconditional offers, with disadvantaged young people the most likely to be affected. “It’s clear that the Tories’ free market experiment in higher education is failing students,” Rayner said.