Contextual uni offers ‘create perception of unfairness’

Policy Exchange also suggests universities should only make unconditional offers in ‘exceptional circumstances’

Policy Exchange's report raised concerns about university admissions policies.

Universities should stop the routine use of contextual offers that make it easier for disadvantaged students to get a place, a thinktank has said.

A report by the right-leaning Policy Exchange, published today, also warns that unconditional offers demotivate A-level students and calls for them to only be made in “exceptional circumstances”.

Former education secretary Nicky Morgan said she believed unconditional offers can have a “disastrous impact” on students.


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Today’s report, written by Joanna Williams, is largely based on interviews with 25 students in their final year of A levels, and 10 members of staff from schools and sixth forms.

Some people interviewed for the report complained about a lack of transparency about how universities make contextual offers, and rumours and misinformation about them.

One sixth-form teacher in London said: “At the moment there is too much suspicion and criticism of the way that contextual offers happen. The whole thing has become too politicised.

The 'danger' of unconditional offers

“The end result is that a growing number of kids, particularly black kids, risk growing up with this view that the world is against them when this couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

The report concludes: “Contextual offers, which often simply lower entry criteria dependent upon an applicant’s postcode, are a crude mechanism for promoting equal opportunity and create a perception of unfairness.”

The report also highlights the growing number of unconditional offers made by universities, which rose from 2,985 in 2013 to 67,915 in 2018.

Some of the teachers interviewed said unconditional offers demotivated students, while others said they made no difference.

One assistant head of an unnamed independent school said: “Our cohort is quite small but those who had unconditional offers last year got, on average, one grade less than their predicted grades compared to those with conditional offers. This can then have a knock-on effect on their future employment prospects.”

Ms Morgan said: “There is a very valid concern about the practice of institutions making students unconditional offers.

“Indeed, there is no doubt in my mind that unconditional offers can have a disastrous impact on individual students and even entire cohorts of pupils in their final year of school or college. Sadly, this report reveals what so many of us fear.”

The report says: “Teachers no longer feel confident in offering pupils advice about their next move. Worse, unconditional offers can act to demotivate pupils before their final exams and, when given in significant numbers, can disadvantage a cohort as a whole.”

The report recommends:

  • Moving to a post-qualification admissions system; 
  • Stopping the routine use of unconditional offers; 
  • Removing predicted grades from the application process;
  • Stopping the routine use of contextual offers;
  • Ending higher education as a ‘rite of passage’.

Universities minister Chris Skidmore said: “This excessive use of conditional unconditional offers is not in the best interests of students – and it is worrying to see such a major rise in their use across all subjects.

“I know there is a place for unconditional offers, but I expect universities to use them responsibly. They must not be used to place students in a position where they are forced to make choices before they know their respective options.

"Where institutions are not acting in the best interests of students the Office for Students should use their full range of powers to take action.

“The review of admissions practices will be an important moment for the sector to ensure the system works in the interests of students.”

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