‘Tide turning’ on use of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers

But data for 2019 show use of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers still high at some universities

January 30, 2020
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Source: iStock/BrianAJackson

The “tide is turning” on the use of controversial “conditional unconditional” offers, and up to three-quarters of universities making such offers may stop this year, the UK’s admissions body has claimed.

Ucas issued the prediction despite the latest data for admissions in 2019 showing that a significant minority of institutions continued to use them in their recruitment, with seven making more than half their offers this way.

Conditional unconditional offers usually involve students being told that they can have a guaranteed place at an institution, regardless of the grades they get in upcoming exams, if they make that university their first choice.

Such offers have been fiercely criticised by government ministers and England’s sector regulator, the Office for Students, with detractors pointing to evidence that applicants holding them perform less well in their school exams.

The latest data from Ucas show that 34 universities made conditional unconditional offers to 18-year-olds from England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the 2019 admissions cycle, up from 29 institutions the year before.

Many of the offers continued to be concentrated in just a handful of institutions. There were seven providers whose conditional unconditional offers made up more than 50 per cent of all their offers of a place, compared with just two universities the year before. Three of these institutions – Falmouth University, Canterbury Christ Church University and De Montfort University – had never employed the offers before, according to the data.

Some other institutions continued to represent a large share of all the conditional unconditional offers in the sector. Six universities accounted for almost half of them, and three – Nottingham Trent University, Birmingham City University and the University of Lincoln – were responsible for 30 per cent of them.

Nottingham Trent, which made more than 11,000 such offers in 2019, almost 14 per cent of the sector total, submitted to Ucas a detailed defence of their use, saying that its “data suggest no evidence that a conditional unconditional or direct unconditional offer has any impact on progression rate, grade attainment, continuation or engagement” for enrolled students.

“In fact, the progression rate for students with unconditional offers in 2018-19 was slightly higher than conditional offer holders. Furthermore, our figures to date indicate that holders of an unconditional offer do better academically than their conditional offer peers.”

Despite the figures for the 2019 cycle, Ucas said its analysis indicated that the number of universities using conditional unconditional offers in 2020 could drop by up to 75 per cent.

Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant said “early indications point very strongly to a behaviour change in 2020”.

This was based on factors including some universities having already stated publicly that they would no longer make them and early modelling of this year’s admission cycle that “shows the tide is turning” on their use. Analysis of applicant decisions last year had also shown that “they were only marginally more likely to choose a conditional unconditional offer as their firm choice”.

However, Ms Marchant added: “Whilst we predict a fall in these types of offers, we will likely see universities and colleges deploy other offer-making strategies, including direct unconditionals, in this competitive market.”

Meanwhile, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said he would be writing to those institutions that still planned to use conditional unconditional offers.

“Under no circumstances are ‘conditional unconditional’ offers justified, and I will write to all universities continuing them asking them to end this practice. I welcome those institutions leading the way in committing to end these offers, but there is clearly more to do.”

Elsewhere, the Ucas provider-level admissions statistics showed that 10 universities recorded a fall of more than 10 per cent in recruitment of UK and other European Union students in 2019.

At two, the University of Chester and Abertay University, the drop in acceptances from all age groups was almost 20 per cent, while another of the 10 was a Russell Group institution, the University of Leeds, where acceptances fell by about 1,000.


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