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Universities must re-think recruitment strategies as rules change on unconditional offers

As the Office for Students places a moratorium on ‘conditional unconditional offers’, Jon Scott, HE consultant and former Pro Vice-Chancellor (student experience) at the University of Leicester, reviews the context of the decision and considers its implications.


On July 3rd the Office for Students (OfS) presented to Parliament ‘Regulatory notice 5: Condition Z3’. Labelled as such, it does not sound very significant but this represents the latest move to apply additional regulations to the higher education admissions process in England.

This Condition to on-going registration with the OfS explicitly prohibits higher education providers from making ‘Conditional Unconditional’ offers of places on undergraduate programmes. A Conditional Unconditional offer takes the form of an applicant being given an unconditional offer of a place, irrespective of their subsequent academic performance in A Levels or other level three qualifications, but only if they make the offering institution their firm choice. As such it may be viewed as a potentially predatory marketing tactic.

The imposition of this regulation follows the initial moratorium on unconditional offers which was put in place in March at the request of the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan. Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of the OfS, supported this intervention, stating: "…it would be quite wrong for any university or college to respond to the coronavirus crisis by making unconditional offers that may put pressure on worried students to accept courses that may not be in their best long-term interests".

In principle, universities have the autonomy to manage their own admissions processes but the current Condition has been imposed under the OfS’s powers regarding ‘Temporary provisions for sector stability and integrity’. As such, Condition Z3 has a finite operational period, coming to an end on 30th September 2021. This means that it will apply throughout the rest of the current admissions round but also throughout the entire round for 2021 entry. Providers found to have breached this condition could be fined £500,000.

Condition Z3 also includes the prohibition of providers ‘making false or misleading statements (including comparative claims)’ about other providers, a condition which is targeted directly at marketing departments under pressure to support recruitment.

The 2020 admissions round is, without doubt, proving one of the most challenging that the sector has ever seen. Even before the pandemic, competition between universities was fierce since the UK is at the bottom of a demographic dip in the number of 18 year-olds. As a result of COVID-19, alongside the profound changes to the level three qualifications, institutions are faced with the prospect of many home students deferring and many international students not coming at all. The financial consequences of such falls in recruitment have the potential to be catastrophic.

In June, following the initial moratorium on unconditional offers, Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, also announced a set of temporary controls of student numbers as part of the package ‘to stabilise university admissions and support the HE system in England’. The Student Number Control (SNC) is based on the numbers recruited by a provider in 2019/20 and their initial forecast for 2020/21 plus 5 per cent. Since most universities aim for growth, the 5 per cent additional growth will be on top of a planned increase in numbers. As a consequence, universities that have the market strength to grow will still be able to do so at the expense of others, though there are significant penalties for those universities that go over the 5 per cent limit.

This is supplemented by the allocation of an additional 10,000 places: 5,000 in healthcare and 5,000 in a range of predominantly STEM disciplines. Eligibility for the latter is determined by high continuation rates and high rates of graduate entry to highly skilled employment. As it turns out, the criteria are such that only Russell Group universities will be eligible to bid for these places and it is likely that they will also be the universities that are in a position to benefit from the additional 5 per cent, at the expense of other providers. This is a move that is unlikely to narrow the gap between the rates of entry to higher education of those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds compared with the most advantaged.

Unconditional, and particularly Conditional Unconditional offer making has been a focus of attention for a number of years prior to these interventions. Even before the pandemic, many universities were looking at a very challenging recruitment round and some had responded with further increases in Conditional Unconditional offer making, with estimations that some 30,000 such offers had been made. Back in 2018 Clare Marchant, the head of UCAS, said that there needed to be an ‘open and honest’ debate about unconditional offer making. Since 2013 the numbers of such offers had increased rapidly amid concerns that they resulted in students under-performing in their A level examinations.

Condition Z3, albeit introduced as a ‘temporary provision’, represents an intervention which shifts the status of the autonomy of providers regarding their admissions processes. Many educationalists would be happy to see a permanent cessation of Conditional Unconditional offer making which can be seen as a predatory tactic and not in the best interest of students. It is certainly unlikely that DfE or OfS would take a sanguine view of its restoration following the run-out of the temporary regulation in 2021. Providers might want to think carefully about their future recruitment strategies and the best interest of students to avoid further chipping away of their autonomy.