Government pressure fails to stem rise in unconditional offers

Thirty-eight per cent of 18-year-old applicants received at least one offer with an unconditional component in 2019, Ucas data show

July 30, 2019
Source: iStock

Nearly two in five 18-year-olds applying to university from England, Wales and Northern Ireland received at least one unconditional offer this year, according to Ucas figures.

Data from the admissions service show 97,045 students without exam results received an offer with an unconditional component in 2019, 38 per cent of the total, up from 87,540 – 34 per cent – in 2018.

By the 30 June deadline, 7.8 per cent of all offers made to 18-year-old applicants from the three territories were unconditional, an increase from 7.1 per cent in 2018. In 2013, less than 1 per cent of offers were unconditional.

This year Ucas included ‘conditional unconditional’ offers – conditional offers that become unconditional if applicants choose that institution as their first choice – when calculating the figures.

This year the number of 18-year-olds receiving this kind of offer grew from 52,145 (around a fifth of applicants) in 2018 to 63,830 (around a quarter) in 2019.

The figures for 2019 also showed that applicants from the most disadvantaged areas were 50 per cent more likely to receive an unconditional offer than applicants from the most advantaged areas: 30 per cent of applicants from the most disadvantaged areas received an unconditional offer in 2019, compared with 20 per cent from the least disadvantaged. 

England’s regulator has previously warned that unconditional offers “with strings attached” were “akin to pressure selling” and earlier this year Damian Hinds, then education secretary, wrote to 23 universities calling on them to stop issuing conditional unconditional offers.

Previous Ucas analysis has shown that more than two-thirds of 18-year-old university applicants in England who held an unconditional offer for a place on a course missed their predicted A-level results by at least two grades.

The latest figures come shortly after Universities UK announced a “major review” of university admissions processes, whose remit will include addressing unconditional offers and potentially recommending a shift to post-qualifications admissions.

The government has also commissioned the Office for Students to conduct its own review of admissions practices. Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the OfS, said it was “concerning” to see a further increase in the rate of unconditional offers made “which actually come with strings attached”. 

“The danger of these conditional unconditional offers is that students feel pressurised to accept a place on a course which might not turn out to be their best option. All registered providers are bound by a condition of registration on consumer law, and the OfS is prepared to act where it sees evidence of ‘pressure selling’ practices which are at risk of breaching consumer law,” Mr Millward said.

In response to the Ucas figures, Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of UUK, said there were “clear benefits in universities being able to use a variety of offer making practices to reflect an individual student’s circumstances, potential and the context of their application, and to support different groups such as students from disadvantaged backgrounds”.

“An important principle of the UK system is that universities decide independently which students they accept; but with this comes a responsibility to explain why and how places are awarded, and to show the public and students why different types of offers are made,” Mr Jarvis said.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, agreed that institutional autonomy in admissions was important but added that universities “are in the midst of a battle to protect that autonomy, and the continuing expansion of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers is making it harder to win”.

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