Is the current criticism of Unconditional Offers justified?

Unconditional offers have been around a long time.  However, since 2013 we’ve seen a rapid rise in offers with some form of unconditional component, from 2,825 in 2013 to 116,870 in 20181.  And within this number, we’ve seen the advent of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers.  This is where a conditional offer becomes unconditional if applying students are willing to make the university their first choice.

But unconditional offers are not widespread. Of the largest 140 universities, 85 make very few such offers. Unconditional offers are restricted to a relatively small number of universities: 18 make at least 20% of their offers unconditional, while 8% make 50% such offers. So unconditional offers may be growing in number, but only from a small number of universities.

Click on the full screen icon in bottom-right corner of the dashboard below to explore who is making the bulk of unconditional offers (press <esc> to exit the dashboard when you’re finished) (source: UCAS, 2018).

It’s important to note that these are offers, not acceptances.  If we take Nottingham University, for example, it makes around 52,000 offers in a normal student recruitment cycle, and in 2018 only 839 students were accepted with unconditional offers2.

Another way of looking at it is to ask: how many applicants actually received some form of unconditional offer?  In 2018, over 695,000 students applied to UK universities, with almost 957,000 offers being made.  In offer terms, that means about 1 offer in 8 had some form of unconditional component, which seems quite a lot, especially when the ratio in 2013 was closer to 1 in 300.  However, if we consider that each applicant may have received between one and five of them, then as few as 23,370 – or around 4% – of applicants could have had offers with an unconditional component.

However, reporting on the issue is mixed and confusing.  Current press coverage as of 5th April 2019, for example, states that 34.4% of 18 years olds received some form of unconditional offers, up from 1.1% in 2013.  The same coverage suggests that 34.4% means 87,750 students.  What is not clear is the 34.4% of all offers made or 34.4% of offers which links directly to an acceptance (i.e. a place).

Whatever the stats may show, the following criticisms are made, with some justification:

  • Student choice reduction and manipulation: some unconditional offers only come into existence if the recipient is willing to place a university at the top of their preferred list (i.e. make them a firm first choice).  This practice is seen as one which restricts student choice and can lock them into a university too early in the admissions cycle;
  • Impact on attainment: there is some evidence that a small proportion (5%) of students which received unconditional offers performed less well than predicted at A level (by at least 2 grades);
  • Impact on disadvantaged student access: some sources suggest that unconditional offers are primarily aimed at recruiting disadvantaged students, but the bulk of such offers come from a small number of universities which operate with a strong regional recruitment focus3.

Blue Mirror Insights comment:

There must be some way to square this discussion.  Let’s just look at the Russell Group: the general claim is that in each UCAS cycle they receive 800,000 applications and make available 100,000 places.  But when we dig deeper (as we have), we find they receive more like 420,200 applications and make 310,040 offers.  In our opinion, the 100,000 number of places makes more sense. 

But when we look at A levels, around 33% of students achieve A* or A, with the highest success rates in Maths (43.3% getting A*/A; with 59.1% in Further Maths).  This drops to 14.9% in Business Studies.

So, we have a pool of students with high ability (A*/A level) which, if we work at a national level, is just about in balance with the number of undergraduate places at Russell Group universities.  As soon as you drop to a regional or city-regional level, then different patterns would probably emerge. 

What we believe would be a good idea is to construct a pragmatic ‘mass balance’ to understand the flow and geography of students of all types.  This would tell us something of the real value and role of unconditional offers.  During this process we would need to split out those going through UCAS from those applying from overseas, together with the split between A level and other entry qualifications like BTEC.  It’s interesting to note that a few universities, including Oxbridge, already do this and make their analyses available.

References

  1. Adam, R. (2019) “20 universities account for bulk of rise in unconditional places”, Guardian, January 31st 2019
  2. University of Nottingham website, “University of Nottingham ends unconditional offers” where it states that the University used unconditional offers to attract students from disadvantaged backgrounds and to ensure modest gains for recruitment in specific subjects. In the future they will better use of contextual offers.
  3. Office for Students, Insight 1, January 2019 Unconditional offers. Serving the interests of students?

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