Concerns about the growth in unconditional offer making by universities, for students with predicted grades, have been expressed for several years now. Back in 2016 the University and College Union (UCU) published a charter to support transparency and fairness in undergraduate admissions, which included a call for a ban on unconditional offer making for applicants with predicted grades. In the context of Linking London, in 2015 we produced a Linking London Good Practice Guide to Admissions, which included an outline of the issues relating to unconditional offer making, including the potential negative consequences both for the college learner as well as the college itself, in terms of grade achievement and non-completion.
In the past few months the issue of unconditional offers has reared its head again, in large part due to the detailed data on unconditional offer making in the UCAS End of Cycle report for 2017 which came out late last year. The report states that for 2017 entry, 17.5% of 18 year old applicants from England, Northern Ireland, and Wales received at least one unconditional offer. This is a 36% increase from 2016, more than double the proportion in 2015 and more than 16 times the proportion in 2013. For 20 HE providers, unconditional offers accounted for between 10 - 20% of all offers made. The number of unconditional offers made are likely to be an underestimation – especially as this data only applies to 18 year old applicants.
Some universities stipulate that as part of their unconditional offer, applicants have to make them their first (or firm) choice. This may contribute to the fact that of all unconditional offers made in 2017, over half were made a first choice by students. There are ethical as well as fair admissions issues here in this approach.
One argument for making unconditional offers is that they are offered to reward academic excellence, but UCAS data shows that students with a predicted grade profile of BBB or equivalent are most likely to receive an unconditional offer. There are also several research pieces that show that predicted grades are poor indicators of final exam performance.
A number of concerns have been expressed about the rise in unconditional offers, in particular that students who have accepted an unconditional offer are much more likely to take their foot off the pedal before the end of their course. UCAS research has found that applicants holding such offers were 23% more likely to fall short of their predicted grades than students with conditional offers. While this won’t affect the applicant with an unconditional offer taking up their place, students who do underachieve as a result of having an unconditional offer may face greater challenges in the longer term in obtaining work placements, graduate employment or when applying to study a postgraduate qualification, where achievement at level 3 is still taken into account. They may also find themselves less well prepared for higher level study as a result.
In conversations with our college partners it is interesting to note that some of their students do not always view unconditional offers positively. Some perceive that an HE institution must be “desperate” to make unconditional offers and in cases where the offer is dependent on accepting firmly as a form of “bribe”. Concerns have also been raised that staff at sending institutions are now over-predicting grades so that their students stand a better chance of getting an unconditional offer.
In terms of government responses the Universities Minister Sam Gyimah has expressed concern about the sharp rise in unconditional offers as has Robert Halfon, Conservative chair of the Education Select Committee, which is looking into unconditional offers of university places as part of a wider inquiry into whether taking a degree is good value for money. Clare Marchant, head of UCAS, said the sector needed to have an “open and honest” debate about the issue and that UCAS will continue to share data on unconditional offer making going forward.
Linking London will keep a close eye on developments in this area and we are pleased that three of our university partners have publically stated that they will not be making unconditional offers to applicants with predicted grades. In the meantime if your role includes advising students on applying to HE you might find the following articles of interest: