OfS has highlighted concerns about some worrying student recruitment practices that may not be in the best interests of students. Source: Shutterstock

English higher education watchdog Office for Students (OfS) has expressed concerns over some student recruitment practices.

In its first annual report, OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge said students are offered enticements and inducements that do not always work in the interests of students. She added that prospective students often lack the information they need to make an informed choice about the content, quality and cost of their courses. 

While launching the organisation’s annual report, Dandridge said offering inducements such as last-minute bursaries to fill up undergraduate courses means students risk being swayed by “a sales pitch with questionable incentives” rather than academic criteria, she was quoted saying by The Guardian.

“There are concerns about the use of financial offers and inducements being made to prospective students going through the Clearing process, a time when those students may be particularly vulnerable,” she said.

Without naming colleges or universities that used inducements or misleading advertising, Dandridge said institutions that exaggerate the quality of teaching or misrepresented their course content would attract the OfS’s attention.

Cash incentives in the form of bursaries or scholarships are another concern of the regulator, with some universities using them to encourage students to enrol in their institutions.

According to The Telegraph, during last summer’s clearing, Westminster University offered up to 40 “clearing scholarships” worth £4,500 each over three years of study while Bedfordshire University’s clearing offer included £1,500 bursaries for all UK and EU students – which goes up to £2,400 for those with grades of B,B,C. (£1 ≈ US$1.30 at the time of publication)

Earlier this year, a Westminster University spokesman said its scholarships recognise the rising cost of living in London as a barrier to students from the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, while Bedfordshire University declined to comment. 

In the same report, Higher Education Policy Institute director Nick Hillman said that the cash incentives “for some applicants, do look and feel like a bribe”.  

“It’s so easy to forget that the people applying to university are often just 17. These inducements are there to change their decision making. If they were just there to be nice to students, they would give the money after the students arrive, on the basis of need,” he was quoted saying.

Apart from admissions and recruitment, other key issues that the OfS plans to pay particular attention to in the year ahead is the quality of information for prospective students and improving the quality of teaching and courses. 

The report also highlighted the need to step up efforts to improve disadvantaged groups’ access to universities.

Dandridge said: “Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are still far less likely than their better-off peers to go to university, far more likely to drop out when they get there, and less likely to get a good job when they leave.”

“Research shows that if students from disadvantaged backgrounds are helped to make the right choice of what and where to study, and given the support that they need during their time in higher education, they can end up performing just as well as, if not better than, their more privileged peers.”

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