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Ucas data suggest drop in ‘conditional unconditional’ offers

Image: Dru Bloomfield [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

But some institutions still make huge use of controversial recruitment tool

There was widespread use of “conditional unconditional” offers to recruit students onto university courses last year, despite government demands to end the practice.

But figures from UCAS also suggest that there will be a decline in controversial offers during the current recruitment cycle.

The offers guarantee a student a place on a course regardless of the grades they achieve in their A levels on the condition that they make the university their solid first choice. They have been criticised by the government for putting undue pressure on applicants. Critics are also concerned that unconditional offers—either the conditional type or ‘no-strings’ versions—offer a disincentive for A level students to work to their potential.

According to figures from the UCAS end-of-cycle report for 2019, parts of which were published on 30 January, at 17 institutions 20 per cent or more of the total offers made for those starting last year were conditional unconditionals. This was a net increase of two providers compared with 2018.

There were seven providers where conditional unconditional offers made up more than 50 per cent of the total offers made to students, compared with just two in 2018.

“Under no circumstances are ‘conditional unconditional’ offers justified and I will write to all universities continuing them to ask them to end this practice,” said Gavin Williamson, secretary of state for education. “We know students who accept unconditional offers are more likely to miss their predicted A levels. I welcome those institutions leading the way in committing to end these offers, but there is clearly more to do.”

Analysis of the 2018 and 2019 data, alongside information on offer behaviour in the 2020 cycle, suggests that universities are “changing their offer strategies in relation to conditional unconditional offers”, says UCAS.

Clare Marchant, the body’s chief executive, said: “Early indications point very strongly to a behaviour change in 2020. We forecast as many as 75 per cent of universities and colleges which made conditional unconditional offers in the 2019 cycle will no longer make these in 2020.”

Top offers

In total, conditional unconditional offers accounted for 1 per cent or more of their total offers made last year at 33 institutions, up from 29 in 2018.

According to the end-of-cycle data published by UCAS today, Medium-tariff providers—determined by the average number of UCAS points required to get onto a course—are most likely to make a conditional unconditional offer. In 2019, 13.7 per cent of the offers made by these providers were conditional unconditional—an increase of 1.3 percentage points on 2018. This compares with 9.4 per cent for lower-tariff, and 3.3 per cent for higher-tariff institutions.

According to a Research Professional News analysis of the underlying data on offers made to 18 year olds starting in English institutions in autumn 2019, the universities with the highest proportion classed as “conditional unconditional” were:

  • Falmouth University (68 per cent of all offers)
  • Canterbury Christ Church University (66 per cent)
  • The University of Lincoln (59 per cent);
  • Birmingham City University (56 per cent)
  • Bournemouth University (56 per cent)
  • De Montfort University (55 per cent)

Falmouth, Lincoln, Birmingham City and Bournemouth all told Research Professional News that they had ceased making conditional unconditional offers for the 2020 recruitment cycle.

A spokesperson for Canterbury Christ Church said its students “come to study with us through a variety of routes with different qualifications, including BTech or accredited access qualification”.

“We use a variety of offer-making practices to reflect the individual’s circumstances,” they said, adding that the university will “continue to monitor our application practice to ensure that it supports students of all abilities and backgrounds who have the potential to succeed within our university community”.

Our analysis also found that 85 per cent of offers made to school-leavers by the University of Suffolk in 2019 were “unconditional”, meaning that applicants did not have any grade requirements in order to be accepted, nor did they have to put Suffolk as their first-choice institution. The proportion was significantly higher than the second-placed university, Solent University, Southampton, where 59 per cent of offers were classed as unconditional. 

“The University of Suffolk makes unconditional offers to a range of applicants based on predicted grades, as well as personal statement reviews,” a spokeswoman for the university told Research Professional News. “For many of our courses, including those within arts and health programme areas, unconditional offers are only made on the condition of a successful interview or portfolio review.”

She added that as part of the offer, applicants were “actively encouraged to complete their current studies”, and that the university would “continue to review our admissions strategy and are committed to maintaining our standards”.

Suffolk also had the highest proportion of unconditional offers in 2018 (84 per cent), as we reported last year.

Research Professional News has contacted Solent University, Southampton, and De Montfort University for comment.