• Fraser Harper

The Challenge for the Office for Students

The early days of regulation and other major changes

Are we moving towards a fair and fully inclusive admissions system for our universities?

Recently, we’ve observed a major, largely negative reaction to the rise in the number of unconditional offers, and in particular, ‘conditional unconditional’ offers.  But, never shy of a challenge, Blue Mirror Insights is asking is this reaction fair and reasonable?  In particular, we’re interested in the context into which these challenges should be placed.

Before focusing on the rise of unconditional offers, we feel it’s important to note some of the major trends and developments in the ‘market’ for university students in the UK.  Without doubt, since their introduction – and in particular since their increase in 2012/13 – fees have triggered a major turning point in student demographics.  Click on the thumbnail below to see our infographic showing a few of the key changes:


Infographic, Blue Mirror Insights 2019

Alongside the changes in demographics, numbers of awards have also declined from their peak in 2012/13, while one particularly hard-hit group – part time students – has seen overall numbers dropping dramatically (by as much as two-thirds) over the last 10 years or so.

Meanwhile, subjects change.  Acceptances in Biological Sciences have increased significantly since 2011 (by nearly 38% to 55,235 in 2018), as have Computer Sciences (up 36% to 27,670) and Social Studies (up 24% to 49,555).  Other more traditional subjects show more modest rises in acceptances, like Engineering (up 16% to 29,975), Education (up 15% to 19,475) and Physical Sciences (up 2.1% to 18,780) – all three of which have actually seen acceptance numbers dropping over the last 3 years.

Meanwhile, others have decreased in the same period, like Combined Arts (down 36% to 8,180), and language-related studies (down 20% to 14,780).

Given the uncertainties, measures have been taken to attract a wider audience.  From 2014 in England, the so-called ‘cap’ was lifted, enabling higher education providers to take on additional students.  At the time, the Government predicted that as a result the number of students entering higher education each year would increase by 60,000 – this has been far from the case, with total acceptances remaining pretty much flat since 2015.

To attract international students, foundation year programmes have been well established for some time in most university and university towns.  Now 18 of the top universities in the UK have embedded pathways.  We’ve also seen several partnership arrangements with the likes of INTO (10 universities), Kaplan (10 universities) and ONCAMPUS (12 universities).  Some of these partners work with specific universities who are willing to make conditional offer letters of acceptance.

Enter the Office for Students (OfS).  With OFFA and HESCE closing in March 2018, the OfS came into being with its clear focuses on participation, experience, outcomes and value for money.  After a little over 1 year in existence, the jury seems to be out on its prospects of success, with some commentators drawing attention to its information overload, the track records of its predecessors and the sheer cost of it.

All in all, it’s a turbulent time for both students and HE providers.  And we’re not even mentioning the ‘B’ word.

Turbulence in any market drives new behaviours and so it’s hardly surprising that we find new approaches being adopted by both students and HE providers.  One new approach has been the rise of unconditional offers.  We’ll examine this in our next post.

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