Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

I’m old enough to remember a time when unconditional offer-making was seen as “bold”.

Universities UK’s new Fair Admissions Code of Practice effectively outlaws “conditional unconditional” offers – where an offer becomes unconditional if the applicant makes that university their firm choice.

It also commits the sector to using unconditional offers more generally only in limited circumstances – such as when qualifications are already held, or when admissions decisions are informed by auditions or interviews.

Essentially what we have here is an update to the “Schwartz principles” on fair admissions from 2004. There’s first an “overarching guiding principle” of admissions processes that must protect and prioritise the interests of applicants and deliver the best outcomes for these applicants, above the interests of universities and colleges:

Universities and colleges should ensure that admissions practices support student choice and do not create unnecessary pressure. Applicants must be able to make informed choices based on clear evidence of their strengths, capability and potential, and on comprehensive and consistent information about how courses, universities and colleges will meet their expectations, both as future students and for their aspirations beyond graduation.

That’s then accompanied by a set of behaviours that can demonstrate the principle – including ruling out conditional unconditionals, narrow criteria for the use of unconditionals in general, and new wording on the use of incentives to avoid “undue pressure” – as well as a get out jail free card for the Open University:

applying to a university or college where non-selective admissions to undergraduate programmes is a core part of the founding purpose of the university or college.

There’s then five additional principles that each have their own behaviours:

  • Admissions processes that are transparent
  • Admissions processes that enable universities and colleges to select students able to complete a course, as judged by their achievements and potential
  • Admissions processes that use reliable, valid and explainable assessment methods
  • Admissions processes that minimise barriers for applicants and address inequalities
  • Admissions processes that are professional and underpinned by appropriate institutional structure and processes

To boldly go

It’s all a far cry from 2013, when the Sunday Times said that it was the University of Birmingham’s “BOLD approach to recruiting some of the brightest teenagers in the country”, all in a bid to “challenge the hegemony of Oxford and Cambridge”, that had helped it secure the title of University of the Year.

“We are operating in a highly competitive environment”, said Birmingham’s VC David Eastwood at the time. “We know our competitors will also be thinking innovatively”. He wasn’t wrong. The decadent decade that ensued saw remarkable growth in unconditional offer making in general, and conditional unconditional offer making specifically – and it covered few in glory.

Newspaper stories – and so not far behind them, ministers – suggested that offers were increasingly being sprayed out indiscriminately. It might well have been a kind of proxy criticism of expansion of the sector – middle class moral panic that university places weren’t as scarce as they used to be – but it defined a decade marked by admissions rounds that were suddenly more about universities scrambling for students than students scrambling for universities.

It turns out that there’s a fine line between competing for the brightest students for a finite number of places and competing for any old student to make the numbers add up – and while Birmingham always argued that that line was somewhere beneath them in the league tables, there was always the defence of “yeah but they started it”.

But now they’re all but gone via a new code, the question is whether negative press interest in the way that university admissions are run will go away. And I’m afraid on that front, I’m not so sure.

Disappearing plot lines

One of the things that is notable about the code and the publicity material surrounding it is that there is no mention at all of the variants of PQA that UUK’s Fair Admissions Review concluded were a great idea.

That review recommended that some sort of move to PQA – either in the form of post-qualifications offers or post-qualifications applications – would result in greater transparency and confidence in the admissions system, give students more choice for longer and would be less distracting for them in the lead up to exams. It was also set to reduce reliance on predicted grades and be fairer for students.

Arguably that review and its PQA conclusion was designed to stave off ministerial concern – as was the Office for Students’ own review that covered much the same ground. That Gavin Williamson pretty much decided to ignore both self-regulation and actual regulation at the time in launching his own review (admissions reviews are like buses etc) was grimly amusing – that after all of that effort in trying to look willing, everyone has now backed off from PQA variants because DfE looks to have lost interest, is pretty embarrassing.

As my colleague Sunday Blake points out, if the “official” reason for backing off from both variants was the way in which it would effectively put almost all students into clearing, we do have to continue to consider those students who are still getting in via that route and the apparent evidence about their subsequent attainment.

Maybe it’s possible to still deliver the transparency and fairness that is called for here – but for a process that’s supposed to be about protecting and prioritising applicant interests over institutional interests, it’s remarkable that there’s no commitment at all to seeking their views or involving them in evaluation activity either inside a provider or across the sector. If everything’s supposed to end up more transparent, don’t we have to test that assumption with the users of the system?

And to the extent to which the new principles represent standards some might not reach, that applicants are still unable to escalate a complaint about admissions to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator in England and Wales feels like a particularly egregious long-term oversight.

There are other aspects missing too. For some reason the code only covers undergraduate admissions, and even then only addresses the recruitment of home domiciled students. OfS’ review was concerned with all sorts of things – postgraduate application fees and the antics of international agents were both specifically mentioned in its consultation document. Its own review might still be on an indefinite hiatus, but those issues haven’t evaporated.

Seats on bums

But as well as all that, there’s another reason that I suspect that we haven’t heard the last of criticism about admissions practices from ministers or the media.

What the lifting of provider-level numbers caps has done is deliver an intense mashup of three kinds of processes:

  1. The assessment of a student’s ability to take part in a particular programme of study
  2. The need to promote programmes and their institutions to generate both applications and enrolments
  3. The provision of information, advice and guidance about a complex and onerous financial instrument and related financial commitments

In an elite and pretty much free education system (and I’m counting here that period when there were fees but access was so restricted as to make them small change for those that paid them) it was only really Process 1 that mattered, and we might assume that intense competition for a small number of fixed-ish places generated some straightforward rules that at least looked and sounded fair.

In that context, the Schwartz principles (and a minor revision to them) work fine.

Clearly when (especially elite) universities are under pressure to diversify their intake, there’s an important set of questions about contextual admissions – what the rules are, whether a similar approach is in use across the sector, and the extent to which universities take deliberate steps to cause the “potential” that is theoretically recognised in a contextual admission to become attainment through participar kinds of support.

Scotland has made lots of progress here, and so if anything it’s a shame that the cross-sector work on this heralded by UUK when the Fair Admissions review launched seems to have fallen by the wayside – possibly because in England ministers and OfS seem much more interested in universities in raising school attainment than in setting it aside when making admissions judgements.

But the point is that both traditional competitive admissions and contextual admissions are both systems whose assumptions are stuck in an era of a small number of fixed-ish places. And so once you have unrestricted growth, and a spectacularly complicated student finance system that is repeatedly sold on the basis of personal financial benefit, things get very murky.

Act now or lose your place

I say that because Process 1 is fundamentally about beneficial scarcity. It’s the idea that the thing you want to buy from the university you’re applying to is not available to everyone, and that if you do get to buy it, you’re lucky as it will do wonders for your life. So the problem may not be that there’s a small number of places that you have to compete over – it’s instead the lingering suspicion that there was never real scarcity in the first place.

Once you mix Process 1 with Process 2 and 3 – often in the same department, prospectus, phone call or social media interaction – you can never escape suspicion:

  • One of the reasons that personal statements will survive (but will be “reformed”) is that large parts of the sector need to maintain the myth that they are read because they make people feel “lucky” to have “won” a “place” – that’s the scarcity illusion.
  • One of the reasons many of the conditional unconditional offer schemes were framed as the university making a “commitment” to “you” is the idea that not everyone is being shown this kind of interest, and so you owe it to the university to show special interest back.
  • One of the reasons discounts on the sticker tuition fee price are framed as “scholarships” that can be “won” by international students with impressive applications is about those international students feeling as special as possible, despite many feeling the opposite once they’ve enrolled.
  • The reason why many universities continue to offer places in their accommodation if an offer is made firm is all on the basis of FOMO too – another particularly unpleasant version of the scarcity principle praying on students’ fear of loneliness.
  • Postgraduate application fees? Scarcity illusions that also bring in revenue. Audition fees? Ditto.

If you’re selective, once they enrol and find a lack of resources or space or academic staff, you can remind them how “lucky” they are to have got in in the first place. If you’re not, you can ignore the problem – safe in the knowledge that despite ministerial concern for non-continuation, sunk costs mean that it’s spectacularly difficult to leave a degree course once you’re enrolled.

Put another way, if it’s immoral to say to someone “choose us and we’ll lower the grades you need to get in”, why is it OK to suggest that it’s hard to get in here when it isn’t?

Then once you mix in the need for those doing the selling of complex and onerous financial instruments underpinning it all to mask the fact that the government is now only putting in 20p in the pound at system level, that there’s massive cross-subsidy between subjects in fees and that the money for maintenance is unlikely to cover your costs and you can get away, as a government, with blaming mis-selling on universities when it was pretty much your fault in the first place.

Look over there

Can that all be fixed? Maybe. That the admissions profession is nowhere near as regulated as the advice you get from financial services companies is one problem. Another is the lack of focus on the “advertising” part of the equation, and the claims that universities make both about benefits and experience when under pressure to make the numbers add up (in more ways than one). It would help if universities were more closely tied to the promises they make and if there was faster progress on the behaviours of international agents.

But we shouldn’t be under any special or particular illusions that any of that will work, and we should avoid the delusions of morality that come from our positioning in the tables. Near the top we can say we’re still about selecting the best while we cause chaos in the rest of the sector by expanding without consequence. Near the bottom we can say we’re about opportunity – when many of the folks we recruit to protect opportunities for the few that can in reality can’t.

In a selective system that trades on being globally elite, the only way to fix it is to have available places – including for PG and international students – more tightly controlled, and to cause the criteria for obtaining a place to be much clearer. As such, the sector’s predilection for viewing SNCs as an encroachment of institutional autonomy will always be the enemy of transparency and fairness for students – and means that the sector will always get the blame when the realities are found out.

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