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Today, Universities UK (UUK) publishes the list of universities that have signed its new Code of Practice on fair admissions. As my University’s name is on the list, I want to congratulate UUK (and GuildHE) for taking a lead on the increasingly vexed issue of university admissions, in particular making impermissible ‘conditional unconditional offers’.

The last decade of policy reforms – the tripling of tuition fees, the reduction in teaching grants, and the removal of the student number cap – has radically changed the environment in which universities operate. 

One can trace many of today’s rather fraught policy debates back to these changes. They meant that the Treasury lost control over the cost of higher education and that universities entered the world of market competition to improve quality and student choice. Given that competing for students was a central policy aim, it is surprising how shocked some people have been when universities have, well, competed for students. Some blame the ‘recruiting’ universities (like Portsmouth) for lowering the tone. But in 2021 it was a ‘selective’ university that used financial incentives of £10,000 for students to defer their place for a year. And the rise in unconditional offers was triggered by their introduction by another selective university.

There is of course nothing wrong with this, but once one university starts to make unconditional offers, the system becomes unstable. Recently, I was talking to a Vice-Chancellor colleague who adopted unconditional offer-making after seeing recruitment collapse on one of their most popular courses because a competitor was making unconditional offers to the same applicants. 

I will freely admit that the University of Portsmouth experienced something similar leading to the creation of our own unconditional offer scheme in 2017. We were very alive to the possible effect on students’ motivations so we instituted a scholarship scheme of £1,000 to each student who achieved or exceeded their predicted grades. Our Finance Director will attest with some annoyance that she has seen no evidence that the scheme led to students easing off. 

One might be tempted to draw a distinction between an unconditional offer (sometimes right) and a conditional unconditional offer (always deemed bad) but the same dynamic applies. Once one university uses conditional unconditional offers, others have to follow suit or they face losing out in the competition for students. 

If conditional unconditional offers are to be restricted, only a collective solution will work – which is why the new UUK Code is so important. UUK are, however, taking on a very big responsibility. Their next Chief Executive will need to ensure that all universities who have signed up to the Code stick to their word. The sector cannot afford saying one thing and doing another on this of all issues. Acting as a voluntary regulator is a big ask for a subscription organisation. And what of those who don’t sign up or who are not even UUK members? Naming and shaming or social media pressure is hardly appropriate for such an important and complex sector.

Even if the Code is a success there remains a need to step back and look at more fundamental issues. Is how we approach the transition from school to university fit for purpose? Post-qualifications ‘offer’ or ‘admissions’ systems were looked at with some clear potential options emerging. They have now been abandoned, quite possibly because the issues are complex and reform would require change from many different parts of the education system. 

Fundamentally we need to ask: how, in a marketised higher education system, should universities compete for students at the same time as ensuring that students can make informed and unpressured choices to get to the institution right for them? 

Reform of UCAS should be looked at. UCAS has evolved incrementally since it was introduced in 1961 (as UCCA). This was pre-Robbins and, more pertinently, pre-marketisation. Universities did not compete for students in the way they do now. Does the current system need change? Conditional unconditional offers are, after all, an artefact of a UCAS system which requires applicants to make a ‘firm’ and ‘insurance’ choice. If applicants treated all offers equally conditional unconditional offers could not exist. 

The reliance on A level results as predictors of success in higher education should also be looked at. Many people worry about their reliability and it is of course not that long ago that our more prestigious universities had separate entrance examinations and some still do.

These are big issues here but they need to be addressed. Tweaks to a system designed for a very different time might do little more than paper over cracks. Perhaps it is time for an Augar-style review of the school to university transition. If such a review is not feasible we should revisit the proposed admissions reforms recently consigned to the ‘too difficult’ box. Overall, while the new UUK Code is to be welcomed deeper issues need urgent attention.