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Minister demands ‘pause’ in Covid-19 unconditional offers

OfS threatens action against institutions switching offers to deal with admissions disruption

The universities minister has warned institutions against changing offers to applicants after the cancellation of A-level exams due to the coronavirus, as the Department for Education says the practice risks “destabilising” the UK higher education system.

Institutions that do change offers have also been threatened with action by sector regulator the Office for Students (OfS).

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan told universities on 23 March that there needs to be a two-week pause in the practice while her department works with the sector on changes to this year’s admissions process.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson cancelled all exams on 18 March, leaving A Level students and universities in the dark about how recruitment for September would operate. As a result, several universities have begun to hand out unconditional offers to students, sparking a warning this could lead to “bankruptcy” for less popular institutions, as our HE service reported.

“As universities seek to secure attendance for the next academic year, I would ask them to refrain from changing existing offers to unconditional offers as it risks destabilising the entire admissions systems,” said Donelan.

The Department for Education said it believed the practice could increase financial uncertainly for institutions.

Office for Students chief executive Nicola Dandridge said, “It would be quite wrong for any university or college to respond to the coronavirus crisis by making unconditional offers that may undermine the sustainability of the university system and increase the financial pressure on other providers. So, I want to make it very clear to any university or college—and its leaders and governors—that if any university or college adjusts any offer to students, or make any unconditional offers, during this two week moratorium we will use any powers available to us to prevent such offer making on the grounds that it is damaging to students and not in their interests.”

Vice chancellors’ group Universities UK has also backed the call, with its chief executive Alistair Jarvis saying institutions would “respond positively to ensure that no student feels rushed into a decision at what is already a difficult time”.

Meanwhile, admissions service Ucas has extended the deadline by which students must make decisions on university offers. Usually, most students have until early May to respond to their offers, but this will be extended by two weeks.

“Universities and colleges will also have additional time to assess applications and adjust their processes in these unprecedented times,” said Ucas chief executive, Clare Marchant.

“We will email students this week with information on their new May decision deadline, and ensure they understand they have additional time over the coming weeks to make their decisions,” she added.

UPDATED 24/3—This story was updated with information from Ucas.