Unconditional offers have become increasingly contentious as their numbers have grown. Recent data analysis showed that a student was 30 times more likely to receive an unconditional offer in 2018 than would have been the case five years earlier.
The evidence suggests that such offers are not always being made responsibly. At the Office for Students (OfS), the independent regulator for higher education in England, we have been determined to be clear with universities about our position on unconditional offers, particularly those which we believe are using them to pressurise students to make bad decisions.
Any tactics that are used to put undue pressure on students to make choices primarily for the university’s own gain are simply unacceptable – Nicola Dandridge, chief executive, OfS
But although we want to tackle the steep rise in unconditional offers, we are not calling for an outright ban. Some unconditional offers have a valid role for specific universities or courses – for example, to allow portfolios, interviews or auditions to play a part in students’ assessments. Nevertheless, if unconditional offers are used indiscriminately to try to maximise recruitment for the provider, this is a cause for concern.
This is particularly true of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, where students must accept an offer as their first choice to ensure that it is unconditional; I see no legitimate justification for the use of these offers.
The evidence shows that students who accept unconditional offers are more likely to underperform at school, achieving results two grades lower than originally predicted on average. This can adversely impact on students where entry results continue to be important to many employers, but also in the extent to which these students are prepared for their university studies.
Indeed, our analysis published this week found that students who accepted an unconditional offer were 10% less likely to continue into the second year of their studies.
Any tactics that are used to put undue pressure on students to make choices primarily for the university’s own gain are simply unacceptable. Where a university’s admissions practices put their own interests above those of students in this way, we will intervene directly with those universities. These practices may amount to breaches of consumer protection law, and we are working with the Competition and Markets Authority to ensure students are properly informed of their rights and options.
We do not accept that offers of this nature are inevitable in a competitive system. Students need better information where there is more competition and greater choice, and university marketing departments have a legal responsibility to ensure they get it.
We do not accept that offers of this nature are inevitable in a competitive system – Nicola Dandridge, chief executive, OfS
We are starting to see action within the sector, with a number of universities committing to end the practice of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers following our publicity around the issue. We welcome the sector’s growing awareness of the impact that unconditional offers and other admission practices have on students’ choices.
To improve this understanding further, we will shortly be launching a wide-ranging review to examine the admissions system more closely. As part of this we will be listening to students; their views on the admissions system generally and unconditional offers specifically.
We know that many students welcome unconditional offers. What we will now need to find out is whether they continue to hold that view once they graduate and, also, what the views are of teachers and of those advising students.
We want to see an admissions system that allows all students, no matter what their background, to make empowered choices – but, for this to be achieved, we first need to ensure that their voices are properly heard.