England’s higher education regulator has warned universities that “indiscriminate” use of unconditional offers is “akin to pressure selling” and could breach consumer law.
A report from the Office for Students says that English universities made 117,000 offers with an unconditional element in 2018 – up from 3,000 in 2013, and accounting for 12.9 per cent of all offers made to 18-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
It expresses particular concern about so-called “conditional unconditional” offers, which become unconditional only when an applicant selected the university as their firm choice. These accounted for roughly half of all unconditional offers made last year – 66,315, and 6.9 per cent of all offers.
Nicola Dandridge, the OfS’ chief executive, said that unconditional offers “with strings attached” were “akin to pressure selling”.
“It is plainly not in students’ interests to push them to accept an offer that may not be their best option,” Ms Dandridge said. “Whatever admissions practices universities choose to use, they should clearly be encouraging students to make the decision that is right for them, and not the decision that best suits the university.
“If we identify cases where unconditional offers are having an obvious negative impact on students’ choices or outcomes, we are of course prepared to intervene.”
The OfS report reiterates Ucas analysis released last year which suggested that receiving an unconditional offer may affect student attainment: 67 per cent of 18-year-olds holding an unconditional offer missed their predicted A-level results by at least two grades, compared with 56 per cent of students holding conditional offers.
This may in turn impact on students’ preparedness for higher education, and the OfS says it will monitor whether students who receive unconditional offers are more likely to drop out of university (in currently available data, the gaps are not statistically significant).
The OfS report also expresses concern that universities with lower entry requirements, which typically recruit students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, are most reliant on unconditional offers.
Among “lower tariff” providers, unconditional offers accounted for nearly one in three (32 per cent) of all offers selected as firm choices by students. At medium-tariff institutions, the figure was one in five (20 per cent), whereas at the most selective institutions it is one in 20 (5 per cent).
The OfS report expresses concern that use of unconditional offers may limit disadvantaged students’ opportunities by depriving them of the opportunity to study at a more selective institution, and argues that institutions should instead make greater use of contextual admissions, under which students from less privileged backgrounds receive offers with lower entry requirements than their more privileged peers.
Chris Millward, the director for fair access and participation, said that the analysis suggested that “more unconditional offers may be being made to students from underrepresented groups to meet the needs of universities rather than students”.
Damian Hinds, the education secretary, said that the increasing use of unconditional offers was “disturbing” and was “not in the best interests of students”.
“To be truly ambitious for students to go as far as their talents will take them, I do not want to see them tempted towards unconditional offers without fully considering all their options or at the cost of achieving even more than they thought possible,” Mr Hinds said.