Are unconditional offers a step too far?

The Report: UCAS’s latest report on unconditional offers reveals some worrying insight into this fast-growing trend, discovers Cathy Parnham

With a massive rise of over 3,900% in offers with an unconditional element since 2013, major concerns have to be addressed about unconditional offers and, more notably, the rapid rise of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, which are proving a challenge to report.

The UCAS End of Cycle Report 2018 shares some alarming research, most notably that 6.9% of all offers made in 2018 to 18-year-olds in England, Northern Ireland and Wales were ‘conditional unconditional’. In fact, conditional unconditional offers were made for every subject apart from medicine and dentistry. In stark contrast, in 2013 no such offers were identified.

One of the reasons conditional unconditional offers are hard to detect is that universities can make a conditional offer via UCAS but email the student direct offering, for example, to make the place unconditional if they make X university their first choice. As UCAS’s report states: “Data is challenging: conditional unconditional [are] sometimes made direct to [a] student; these remain conditional until accepted as firm; and if not chosen as firm then they remain conditional.”

Furthermore, the UCAS report reveals that a conditional unconditional offer has a major impact on student choice. 

It states: “In 2018, over 60% of applicants who received a conditional unconditional offer said it had a big impact, or some impact, on their firm choice decision, with less than 20% saying it had no impact at all.”

Clearly, there is a need for transparency and regulation. And according to recent TSR Insight (https://tsrmatters.com/tsrinsight-solutions-and-services), of 557 students who responded, 46% called for the government to regulate the number of unconditional offers made. The TSR Insight also stated: “Sixty-two per cent said these offers should be made to applicants who had already received their grades.”

Conditional unconditional offers were made by over 20% of the largest 140 providers in 2018

In fact, the UCAS report found that 80% of applicants said they were studying at a provider that made them a conditional unconditional offer. 

You could argue that this is a form of manipulation, dangling an incentive to secure a guaranteed place at university and, with such influence, students may be blindsided into not choosing the best university or even course for their needs and their future. 

As Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, states: “It is plainly not in students’ interests to push them to accept an offer that may not be their best option.”

Strings attached?

What is particularly worrying about unconditional offers and needs remedying urgently is that, as Dandridge points out, “those with strings attached… are akin to pressure selling”. And, as the OfS warns, this may well be in breach of consumer law.

For clarification, we spoke to Smita Jamdar, partner and head of education at law firm, Shakespeare Martineau. Jamdar said: “The OfS’s use of the phrase ‘pressure selling’ is pretty significant. Under consumer protection law, this is a concept associated with aggressive or misleading sales techniques. As such, it involves stringent regulation, so much so that certain behaviours are banned altogether (such as falsely claiming an offer is only open for acceptance for a short period of time) while others are subject to a wider test of ‘unfair dealing’. Breaches carry the risk of criminal sanctions and enhanced consumer rights to financial redress. 

“While the OfS hasn’t given specific examples of where this has happened with unconditional offers, it’s an area that institutions need to manage carefully for both financial and reputational reasons.”

This is clearly an area that must be investigated further – especially in light of the fact that “Conditional unconditional offers were made by over 20% of the largest 140 providers in 2018,” according to the UCAS report. Closer monitoring and regulation are essential to ensure students are making the right and most appropriate choice for them, within the legal framework of the law.

Drivers of growth

So with 68,000 unconditional offers awarded in 2018 – compared to just 3,000 in 2018 – which equates to more than one in five applicants receiving an unconditional offer, what is driving this growth? The UCAS report points to a number of specific factors, namely:

● as a recruitment tool

● to support efforts to widen participation and access

● to assist vulnerable students.

“Unconditional offers are also being used more widely in certain disciplines, where providers consider the demonstration of talent through an audition, portfolio or interview, to be a more valid means of evaluating potential than examination grades,” the report states.

While this needs to be supported and encouraged, the scales at face value seem to have been tipped to the extreme in the case of a number of universities who gave out unconditional offers to over 70% of applicants, namely the University of Suffolk, York St John University and the University of Bolton. 

We spoke to Rob Hickey, executive director at York St John University, to find out why they had such a high reliance on unconditional offers in 2018 (over 70%). 

Hickey stated: “Our students, many of whom come from backgrounds that are underrepresented in universities, report a positive university experience, high levels of support and enjoy strong employment outcomes. For 2019 entry we have introduced a new contextual offer scheme that targets our unconditional offers to better support students who face the greatest barriers to entering higher education, while reducing the number of unconditional offers we make by more than half.

“Our historic unconditional offer-making was based on an applicant’s predicted grades. We offered scholarships to encourage applicants to work to their full potential and we never made ‘conditional unconditional’ offers dependent on applicants making us their firm choice, the practice criticised by the Office for Students as ‘pressure selling’. Instead, we made offers in an open way that gave applicants a straight choice about whether we were the right university for them. Students have told us that our unconditional offers have helped reduce the stress they feel leading into exams.  

“Our analysis shows no significant difference in first year attainment and retention between students who come to us through conditional offers and those who come through unconditional offers.”

While contextual offers and widening access to HE must be encouraged, and over two-thirds of students feel positive about unconditional offers, the UCAS report does identify that those students receiving unconditional offers “are likely to miss their A-level grades by two or more points”.

Under consumer protection law, this [pressure selling] is a concept associated with aggressive or misleading sales techniques

While this may not hinder their ability to go to university, this could affect them later down the line in the workplace or if they decide that university isn’t for them and are more reliant on the A-level grades.

At all times the interests of the students must be the prime focus and offers need to fall within the framework of UCAS guidelines, be open and transparent, and, most importantly, operate within the law.

So, what’s next?

While UCAS has published guidelines for unconditional offers, as the report states: “The analysis cannot stop here. In accordance with good practice, many universities and colleges are tracking the progress and outcomes of students admitted with unconditional offers, and benchmarking them against students admitted to the same programmes through conditional offers.”

It feels very much that there needs to be some levelling and the data needs to be embraced and learnings taken over how best to move forward with unconditional – and particularly conditional – offers. “As this evidence base builds, providers should share their findings, to enable a nuanced debate about the future use of unconditional offers to young people,” the UCAS report states.

Dandridge quite rightly questions “whether the admissions system as a whole is serving students’ interests in an era of intense competition between universities,” with a promise to consult with the DfE, UCAS, students, HE providers, schools and employers to “achieve the goal of providing every student with a fulfilling experience of higher education”.

Transparency, openness and ease of data recording are clear and obvious immediate needs for the admissions process.