Office for Students wades into unconditional university offers storm

One of the first orders of business at the new Office for Students will be to investigate the sharp rise in unconditional university offers, and it will “take action” if these are found to adversely affect pupils.

Unconditional offers – which promise university places to pupils regardless of their A-level results – allow pupils to make less effort in their final year at school, according to complaints from headteachers.

The OfS, which operates as England’s new universities regulator, is investigating these claims in tandem with the admissions regulator Ucas.

Unconditional offers issued to 18-year-olds in England increased seventeen-fold in the last four years.

In 2013, less than one per cent of offers were unconditional. Last year, 17.5 per cent of offers did not include any requirement to hit specific A-level grades. That’s a leap from fewer than 3,000 unconditional offers per year to around 50,000.

Universities claim the offers widen access to higher education, but heads are demanding reforms to prevent them from “undermining” schools.

Phil Stock, the deputy headteacher at Greenshaw High School in Sutton, wants an “overhaul of the whole system”.

If a school breaks the national admissions code they get held to account. There’s a process.

Rather than the highest achievers, those receiving unconditional offers tend to be those who “don’t necessarily have the best work ethic”, he warned. This has led to a drop in attendance, unsubmitted work and ultimately lower grades in final exams. It also undermines the hard work that goes into preparing pupils for university applications.

“Universities are handing out these unconditional offers without any real regard to the consequences,” he said. “Often it’s those very students who can flourish in a supportive environment with passionate teachers who make sure they keep up with the work.

“But once you remove the biggest carrot of them all – the thing they are working towards then obviously that has a very demotivating effect.”

Kieran Walshe, a professor at Manchester Business School and chair of governors at a secondary school in Cheshire, wants greater powers for the government to punish universities for foul play.

“If a school breaks the national admissions code they get held to account. There’s a process. There isn’t one for universities,” he said. “In this relationship, all of the power is in the hands of the university.”

Ian McGarry, a guidance manager at Greater Manchester Higher – a collaboration of universities and colleges around Manchester – also warned using unconditional offers to recruit students from deprived backgrounds was undermining work done to try and widen participation.

“My worry is that it is students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are increasingly being love-bombed by unconditional offers and who, potentially, do not complete their studies to the best of their abilities,” he said.

Discussing the investigation, Chris Millward, the director for fair access at the Office for Students, said the new regulator “does not intervene in individual admissions decisions” but is working with UCAS to investigate the impact of unconditional offers on pupils’ access to higher education and degree and employment outcomes. It will report back by the end of the year.

Universities have however strenuously defended their use.

Rob Evans, head of admissions at the University of Sussex, claimed he had seen “no evidence” to support the criticism that the offers encourage pupils to work less hard or achieve lower results.

The University of Surrey said unconditional offers provide students and their families with “the confidence they need to continue their studies and fulfil their high academic potential.”

And a spokesperson for Kingston University said unconditional offers were only made after a “careful review” of applications.

Universities UK, the body that represents higher education institutions, also sought to play down the problems.

“Unconditional offers account for a very small proportion of all offers made by universities,” a spokesperson told The Independent last month.

“It is simply not in the interests of universities to take students without the potential to succeed at university.”