England’s higher education regulator is urging universities to avoid using misleading adverts and financial inducements to attract students, saying it could encourage applicants to make choices that are not in their best interests.

The Office for Students said offering inducements such as last-minute bursaries to fill up undergraduate courses risked students being swayed by “a sales pitch with questionable incentives” rather than academic criteria.

“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,” Nicola Dandridge, the OfS’s chief executive, said while launching her organisation’s annual report.

While the regulator declined to name any universities or colleges that had recently used inducements or misleading advertising, Dandridge warned institutions that exaggerating the quality of teaching or misrepresenting the content of their courses would attract the OfS’s attention.

“There can be no place for false and misleading advertising in how universities sell themselves to prospective students,” Dandridge said.

“We cannot have a situation where students’ expectations are raised unrealistically before they go to university, only to be dashed when they get there.”

The annual report also highlighted the need for greater efforts to improve access to universities by disadvantaged groups, with the OFS backing a radical overhaul of the way students from poor backgrounds are admitted and retained on courses.

But the report also revealed the regulator is unhappy at the failure of many English universities to produce workable student protection plans, which the OfS has touted as a major feature of the new regulatory regime launched in 2017.

These are intended to reassure prospective students on what action a university will take in the event of a course, campus or institutional closure disrupting their education.

The OfS complained that many university plans were “very poor” and admitted it had approved inadequate protection plans to avoid suspending the institutions involved.

“It would not have been in the interests of students to delay registration in so many cases, so we have approved a number of plans that are significantly below the standard we would expect,” the OfS said.

Michael Barber, the OfS’s chair, has previously said that it will not be able to bail out universities in the event of financial failure, regarding its only role as being to protect students’ interests, saying he expected universities “to develop realistic plans for the future”.

The OfS report comes as the UK higher education sector is in the middle of a battle between unions and employers over their pensions, pay and conditions.

On Wednesday, the University and College Union, which represents researchers, librarians, technicians and administrators as well as lecturers, announced it will reballot its members at 36 universities next month over continued strike action.

In the last month UCU members have taken eight days of strike action at 60 universities. The new votes could potentially add to that total.

“We have been clear from the outset that UCU members are prepared to take serious and sustained action to defend their pay and conditions, as well as their pensions,” Jo Grady, UCU’s general secretary, said.

“This is the time for employers to demonstrate they are serious about wanting to avoid further and even more widespread disruption at our universities.”




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