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Quarter of students given ‘conditional unconditional’ offer

Image: bibiphoto, via Shutterstock.com

Conditional unconditional offers grow in 2019, but students are less likely to accept

Universities are handing out more ‘conditional unconditional’ offers despite the government’s promise to tackle the rise.

End of cycle data for 2019 from the admissions body Ucas reveal that students are receiving more conditional unconditional offers, where their offer becomes unconditional if they choose that university as their first choice. Conditional unconditional offers accounted for 8.5 per cent of all offers in 2019, representing a jump of 26.2 per cent on 2018.

The data showed that 64,825 18-year-old applicants in all UK countries except Scotland received a conditional unconditional offer in 2019, representing a quarter of those applicants. In 2018, conditional unconditional offers accounted for around a fifth of offers with 53,355 students receiving one. The proportion of students receiving conditional unconditional offers has grown each year from 2013, when Ucas recorded it as 0 per cent.

Two reviews of the admissions system are being carried out, one by the Office for Students and one by vice-chancellors’ body Universities UK, with help from Ucas and others.

Gavin Williamson, education secretary in the previous government, had backed the Office for Students’ review of the admissions system—endorsed by his predecessor Damian Hinds—and its focus on the “on whether ‘conditional unconditional’ offers are harming students’ interests and whether they breach their consumer rights.”

Commenting on the data Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said the fact that students with lower grades were more likely to accept a conditional unconditional offer showed that they were not being used to reward high-achieving students.

“‘Unconditional offers have a place in university admissions. But we remain concerned by the continuing rise in so-called ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, which risk pressuring students’ into making decisions that may not be in their best interests,” she said. “Happily, today’s data suggests that students are becoming increasingly cautious about being influenced by such admissions practices.”

While acceptance rates for conditional unconditional offers have gone down to 20 per cent from almost 26 per cent in 2014, those with lower predicated grades are more likely to be affected. Students predicted to achieve A level grades between CCC and BBC are significantly more likely to accept a conditional unconditional offer than students predicted to achieve BBB grades and above.

In 2019, 37.7% of 18-year-old applicants from England, Northern Ireland and Wales received an offer with an unconditional element to it.

Unconditional offers also had an impact on students missing their predicted grades. In 2019, 42.8 per cent of applicants holding a conditional firm offer missed their predicted A level attainment by three or more grades, a rise on 38 per cent in 2018. But 56.7 per cent of applicants holding an unconditional firm offer missed their predicted A Levels by three grades or more.

Clare Marchant, chief executive of Ucas, said unconditional offers “remain a complex issue”. “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”, she added.

But Jo Grady, general secretary for the University College Union—which has long campaigned for a post-qualification admissions system—said the UK’s admissions system is “a global outlier and is in desperate need of an overhaul.”

“The current system asks young people to base major life decisions on wildly inaccurate predicted grades, and has encouraged the exponential growth of controversial unconditional offers,” she said.

“A shift to post-qualification admissions would not only be fairer for students, it would bring the UK into line with the rest of the world by basing offers on actual achievement rather than vague estimates of potential.”

However, fewer students picked an institution with a conditional unconditional offer as their firm choice. In 2019, 20.6 per cent of students who received one conditional unconditional offer in a total of five offers chose that institution as their first choice. In 2014, it was 25.6 per cent of those students. Applicants are now only 1.3 percentage points more likely to choose a university making a conditional unconditional offer, the smallest since 2014, the earliest available year.

The Ucas data also showed a 19.2 per cent rise in the number of students with a mental health issue being accepted to university, at 15,815 students. The number has risen each year since 2012, when 2,840 students accepted to courses had a registered mental health disability.

A record fifth of young people from disadvantaged areas, using the POLAR4 measure of deprivation, were accepted to undergraduate courses, while the gap in acceptance rates between the most and least disadvantaged students has decreased 0.9 percentage points to 47.4 per cent.