Huge rise in unconditional offers for university places

Sam Gyimah, the universities minister, has accused universities of being “completely irresponsible” and undermining the credibility of university education by steeply increasing the number of unconditional offers made to prospective students in a scramble to fill places.

School and college leaders have also weighed in, with the university and college union demanding an overhaul of the admissions system to “get rid of unconditional offers”.

The calls were triggered by the release of new data showing that nearly one in four prospective university students was given at least one unconditional offer from one of their chosen universities this year.

Some 23% of prospective students were told they required no A-levels or equivalent qualifications to take up their place at university, a proportion that has risen steeply from 1.1% in 2013 and that represents a 32% increase on last year when the proportion was 17.5%, according to the data, which was released by UCAS, the university admissions service.

In total 67,915 unconditional offers were made by universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland this year, accounting for 7.1% of all offers, up from 0.4% of all offers in 2013 and 5.3% last year.

This is the first time that UCAS has analysed the pattern of offers made during the application cycle. Conditional offers usually specify the grades a student needs to achieve in their A levels, BTECs or any other relevant qualification, to be accepted onto a course. Unconditional offers don’t have any further academic requirements the student needs to meet.

‘Distracting students’

Gyimah said: “The rise in unconditional offers is completely irresponsible to students and universities must start taking a lead by limiting the number they offer.

“Places at universities should only be offered to those who will benefit from them, and giving out unconditional offers just to put ‘bums on seats’ undermines the credibility of the system.”

The higher education watchdog, the Office for Students, said it is “closely monitoring” the situation and Gyimah said he “fully expects the regulator to take appropriate action”.

“Unconditional offers risk distracting students from the final year of their schooling and swaying their decisions does them a disservice – universities must act in the interest of students, not in filling spaces,” he said.

Since they rely on funding received by tuition fees, universities are under pressure to fill their programmes – or from another perspective they have a financial incentive to fill their programmes. But universities usually make it a requirement that a student accepts an unconditional offer as their committed choice. UCAS figures show that 42,100 students accepted their unconditional offer as their committed choice this year.

Currently students pay up to £9,250 (US$12,100) a year in tuition fees and there is no longer a cap on the number of students a university can admit, but the population of 18-year-olds is in decline.

Universities UK defended the use of unconditional offers. Alistair Jarvis, Universities UK chief executive, said: ”Unconditional offers, when used appropriately, can help students and ensure that universities are able to respond flexibly to the range of applicants seeking places.”

He also said the number of unconditional offers made still accounts for a small proportion of all offers made by universities, despite the “steady growth”.

However, secondary school teachers have criticised the practice, arguing that it encourages school students to take their foot off the pedal or even stop going to lessons, with the result that they are less well prepared for university and are saddled with poorer A-level results than they otherwise would have earned.

A report by The Times seemed to support this criticism, indicating that school students with unconditional offers were 23% more likely to miss their predicted A-level grade by two or more grades compared with peers whose university place depended on achieving particular grades.

‘Hamper job prospects’

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "This huge increase in unconditional offers is driven by competition between universities and is not in the best interests of students.

"It can lead to students making less effort in their A-levels because their place is assured. That can then hamper their job prospects later down the line if potential employers take into account their A-level grades."

The University and College Union called for a complete overhaul of the university admissions system to get rid of unconditional offers. The union said the UK should adopt the system preferred in the rest of the world where students apply to university after they receive their exam results.

University and College Union General Secretary Sally Hunt said it is time the UK “joined the rest of the world in basing university offers on actual achievements instead on guesswork”.

'Unconditional offers have made a mockery of exams and put students under enormous pressure to make a snap decision about their future. They can also encourage talented students to take their foot off the gas, instead of striving for excellence,” she said.

Jarvis said Universities UK will continue to work with UCAS to monitor trends and any impact unconditional offer-making might have on student attainment.

"It is simply not in the interests of universities to take students without the potential to succeed," he said.

Historic use of unconditional offers

According to UCAS, unconditional offers have always been a part of the admissions process and are used in a variety of circumstances, including:
  • • To mature students who have already achieved their qualifications to meet entry criteria.

  • • To those applying for creative arts courses, after submitting a portfolio, or following a successful interview or audition. Artistic flair is likely to be viewed as a better indication of potential than traditional grades.

  • • To reduce the stress some students may feel during the high-pressure exam period, supporting students with mental health difficulties.

  • • As one of the many different approaches universities use to attract and retain interest from students in a competitive marketplace.
Helen Thorne, UCAS director of external relations, said: “While unconditional offers are made for a number of reasons, we believe that universities should always emphasise to students the importance of completing their studies to the best of their abilities. This will help make sure they’re well prepared for their degree course, and for future employment.”