Controversial ‘conditional unconditional’ offers continue to rise, Ucas figures show

Students are more likely to miss their predicted A-level grades if they have accepted a ‘conditional unconditional’ offer, figures confirm

Over a quarter of 18-year-old university applicants from England, Wales and Northern Ireland received a ‘conditional unconditional’ offer this year, up 5% on last year’s figure, a report from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) has revealed.

In its end of cycle report for 2019 admissions, Ucas revealed that a record of 25% of undergraduate applicants (representing around 65,000 students) received at least one ‘conditional unconditional’ offer from a university. Last year, the figure was 20% of applicants.

In September, education secretary Gavin Williamson called upon universities to end the practice.

During a speech at the Universities UK (UUK) conference in Birmingham, Mr Williamson said: “I’m delighted that some universities have already scrapped making so called ‘conditional unconditional’ offers. I hope, and I expect, that the rest are going to follow suit.”

Earlier this year, UUK launched a major review of offer-making practices.

Rise in ‘conditional unconditional’ offers

A ‘conditional unconditional’ offer is a conditional offer of a place at university, which is then updated to unconditional if the place is accepted as the student’s first firm choice.

The Office for Students (OfS) has warned universities that this type of offer is “akin to pressure selling and could put them in breach of consumer law”.

Although government ministers have long criticised the controversial offer-making practice, they have no direct power to ban it.

Students who accept a ‘conditional unconditional’ are more likely to miss their predicted grades, Ucas confirmed. In 2019, 57% of applicants with an unconditional offer missed their predicted A-levels by three or more grades, compared to 43% of applicants with a conditional offer.

But the report also revealed that students are only marginally more likely to choose a ‘conditional unconditional’ than another type of offer. Applicants with four conditional offers only chose the ‘conditional unconditional’ in one in five cases, down from one in four in 2014. Those with higher predicted grades are less likely to accept a ‘conditional unconditional’ than those with lower predicted grades, the report added.

A Ucas survey of 30,000 students found that those with an unconditional offer are more likely to feel calm and less stressed than those with only conditional offer.

Clare Marchant, Ucas’ chief executive, said: “‘Unconditional offers remain a complex issue and our new insight will further inform the dialogue, forming a crucial contribution to the current admissions practice reviews. Their impact on attainment needs to be highlighted, though this must be seen alongside their role in widening participation activities and benefits to students’ mental health.”

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said the regulator remained “concerned by the continuing rise in the so-called ‘conditional unconditional’ offers. She added that the data suggests students “are becoming increasingly cautious about being influenced by such admissions practices” and welcomed the trend.

The report’s other findings

Entry rates for London far exceeded the national average. Nearly 45% of 18-year-olds from the capital were accepted into higher education, compared to 35% in England and 30% in Wales. The North East of England had the lowest acceptance rate, with 30% of 18-year-olds accepted.

Students from the least advantaged backgrounds accepted to university reached a record high, with more students from all POLAR4 groups reaching higher education than ever before.

The entry rate between the most and least advantaged students to higher tariff universities has narrowed to 8%.

The number of Chinese students accepted rose by 22%, to a record 45,140 undergraduates.

“It is particularly encouraging to see record entry rates of disadvantaged students starting university,” Ms Marchant said, “and the equality gap at higher tariff narrow by a record 8% since last year.”

Read The End of Cycle Report for 2019 

Check the Ucas dashboard for End of Cycle Data

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