OfS backs off

The Office for Students (OfS) has announced that it has scaled back and narrowed proposals to fine providers that change admissions strategies because of financial pressures related to the coronavirus pandemic

Announcing the results of its consultation on a new regulatory condition, OfS said that the condition would focus on home UG offer making and advertising, identifying a specific ban on “conditional unconditional” offers until September 2021. It is also introducing a specific ban on making “false or misleading statements” about other providers.

The original proposals had included wider examples of recruitment practice to increase student intake beyond normal levels – which it said could include lowering academic or language requirements for international applicants, offering incentives or gifts for students to accept offers, or engaging in aggressive marketing activity designed to attract students away from other choices. While these descriptions will now be deleted from the temporary condition, OfS said that any form of unconditional offer-making for UK-domiciled applicants, or form of advertising or marketing, will be considered against an “overarching principles-based prohibition in relation to conduct that in the reasonable opinion of the OfS could be expected to have a material negative effect on the stability and/or integrity of the English higher education sector” – effectively killing off “unconditional offers” as a general marketing tactic.

Consultation responses were sharply divided on the proposals, with many criticising what they saw as regulatory “overreach”, and others expressing concern that OfS would be able to take enforcement action in relation to conduct that predated the consultation. Responding to specific concerns about segments of the sector, OfS also said some unconditional offers would be specifically permitted – for applicants who already have their qualifications, creative courses where portfolios and auditions are deemed more important than predicted grades, and adult learners who can demonstrate relevant prior learning.

In apparent contrast to views expressed by Universities Minister Michelle Donelan earlier in the week, OfS also made specifically clear that contextual offers – where students from disadvantaged or underrepresented groups are admitted with lower grades than the advertised entry requirements – can and should continue. Commenting on the conditional unconditional offers ban, Donelan said that students should not “be taken advantage of” and said she hoped to see the ban continue beyond 2021.

The decision is covered in an anonymous blog on the HEPI site, by the Guardian and i News, and is on the Press Association wires.

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