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30,000 offers switched to unconditional due to COVID-19 pandemic

The Office for Students is seeking temporary powers to control university admissions due to the increasing number of university offers being changed to unconditional.

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A reported 30,000 conditional offers have been switched to unconditional after the announcement of the COVID-19 pandemic. This switch has been made in a bid to mitigate the financial losses from the reduced number of international students being able to attend UK universities this year, and to ensure the losses of domestic students do not follow suit.

Specifically, the Office for Students (OfS) states that many institutions suddenly switched their offers to unconditional after 11 March, (which was the day the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic).

However, this move by universities has been noticed by the Government, and resultantly, the OfS is seeking temporary powers to control admissions to universities. This includes the ability to force institutions to retract offers which the Office disapproves of, which may include unconditional or heavily reduced offers. The OfS expects universities which handed out large quantities of unconditional offers after 11 March to withdraw the offers which students haven’t accepted yet. It is reported that if universities fail to comply, fines are intended to be implemented. The OfS has also stated that unconditional offers which would have usually been handed out need not be withdrawn.

Ministers believe that many students will accept an unconditional offer over a conditional offer to their preferred university because they want certainty. This could prompt more universities to follow suit in changing conditional offers to unconditional to gain a competitive advantage. However, if this were to happen, a domino effect of universities completely ignoring A-Level results could occur, which would be detrimental to the higher education sector overall.

As reported by The Guardian, some universities have sought legal advice in a bid to challenge this, as they see the Government’s plans as a danger to their autonomy as a higher education institution.

The Guardian’s Westminster source on this matter commented on the severity of the move by universities, stating that “there were some universities where every single one of their offers were converted to unconditional overnight in response to the pandemic.” This demonstrates how panicked higher education institutions are over the effects of the pandemic, and how their standards are dropping in a bid to survive severe financial losses. As reported by Nouse, York alone is estimated to lose around £100 million in income losses resulting from the pandemic.

However, this will not only affect universities, but also the thousands of students receiving these offers themselves. If universities are made to withdraw offers to students, this could cause the needed certainty for students to dissipate. Speaking further on the effect to students, Smita Jamdar, the head of education at the law firm Shakespeare Martineau - who has also been advising universities on the OfS’s new powers - stated that “students may feel they are having something valuable taken away from them. Institutions need to think carefully about the legal rights of the students and the reputational impact of it all.”

The statement from the Department of Education on these proposed new powers is as follows:

“We are committed to supporting our world-class universities and students through this challenging time. Prospective students will understandably feel nervous about their future, and their interests must be put first.

“We do not want students to be pressured into a major life decision which might not be right for them.

“The range of measures we announced, including student number controls, aim to ensure the long-term sustainability of the sector.”

Nouse have contacted the University for their view on the new OfS plans but we have not received their response yet.

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