The controversy surrounding the increasing incidence of unconditional offers — offers made without any required grades needing to be met by the offer holder — comes down to whether or not the practice negatively impacts offer-holders’ A level attainment.
Many reasons, which often revolve around the need for universities to compete against each other to recruit students in the post-2012 age of higher tuition fees and removal of student number caps, have been given for the increase in unconditional offers – a trend noticed in particular over the last five or so years.
An article in The Times earlier this year suggested that “underperformance” — when unconditional offer-holders fall short of achieving their predicted grades — could have implications for students’ careers after graduation, while universities minister Sam Gyimah criticised institutions giving out higher proportions of unconditional offers for “undermining the credibility of higher education”.
This morning UCAS published the first phase of its 2018 end-of-cycle report on the trends in applications and acceptances to higher education providers in the UK. The report includes an analysis of unconditional offer-making in the sector, focusing on unconditional offers made to 18-year-old applicants in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. UCAS published analysis over the summer on unconditional offer-making as of 2015, which found that unconditional offer-holders were significantly more likely to miss their predicted grades, and this latest publication backs this up.
There was an increase in offer rates for all age groups, however this increase was largest for the older age group (those applying for higher education courses at age 25 and over). Offers made requiring the highest grade profiles were broadly stable – they have seen a marginal decrease. However there has been a notable increase in offer rates for the lowest levels of A level attainment, given by grade profiles CCD-EEE. Recent years have also seen a diversification in the grade profiles of those receiving unconditional offers.
Use of unconditional offers by universities is increasing: in 2018, universities made approximately 68,000 unconditional offers to 18-year-old applicants from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, compared to a total of 3,000 made in 2013. As a proportion of total offers made, the share of unconditional offers increased from 9.2% in 2013 to 15.1% in 2018. Most unconditional offers are made to applicants aged 19 or over, but the proportion made to 18 year-olds has increased significantly since 2013. More than one in five applicants received at least unconditional offer in the admissions cycle ending 2018.
A large proportion of this increase comes from the higher prevalence of “conditional unconditional offers” – a type of offer not detected by UCAS in 2013, the term describes conditional offers that “become” unconditional if a student decides to take up the offer as their firm choice. In the case that they do, this becomes an unconditional offer. This type of offer accounted for most of the unconditional offers made in 2018, and 6.9% of total offers made by providers to 18-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the latest full application cycle. Scotland is excluded from this analysis given that unconditional offers are much more commonly made by its providers, however — unlike the other nations — applicants receiving offers have often already attained their SQA higher grades upon applying.
The main thing to come out of UCAS’ analysis is the finding that applicants holding unconditional firm offers (by June 30) are more likely to fall short of their predicted grades than students with a conditional firm offer. The proportion of 18 year-old applicants who missed their predicted A level attainment by two or more grades was higher among those holding unconditional firm offers for every year in the last five years. The difference compared to those holding a conditional firm offer in this period varied from 7 to 13 percentage points across the time period. UCAS estimates that, in 2018, holding an unconditional firm offer resulted in a further 1,015 English applicants aged 18 who were studying for at least three A levels missing their predicted level of attainment by two grades – this accounts for 1.6% of this population.
Here, it is important to note the differences in the characteristics of the students that tend to receive unconditional offers, which partially accounts for what seems like a very stark difference in attainment compared with predicted attainment.
In 2018, unconditional offers were most likely to be made to applicants from the POLAR 4 quintile (1) of greatest disadvantage — more than a quarter (28%) of unconditional offers were made to applicants from this quintile, with the percentage falling for each quintile to 18% for applicants from quintile 5 — the areas of least disadvantage, defined in terms of participation in higher education. A similar but less pronounced result is observed in 2017, but the difference between the share of unconditional offers made to applicants of the different quintiles is more stark this year than at any other point across the time period. Results for 2013 and 2014 suggest a more or less equal share of unconditional offers made to applicants from each of the five quintiles. This is partly a function of the increased incidence of unconditional offers – variations in previous years appear relatively less pronounced.
If we look at predicted grades, we see that unconditional offers focus on the lower middle of the spectrum, with a peak at around the BBB level. This is possibly linked to lower average attainment among hard-to-recruit applicants, but also makes it clear that unconditional offers are not substantially being made in order to recruit outstanding academic students.
The subject-level data shows that shares of unconditional offers vary markedly by subject – offers made for courses in some subject groups, such as veterinary medicine and subjects related to agriculture, were consistently more likely to be unconditional than those made for engineering, for example. The most outstanding increase is in the creative arts and design courses – unconditional offers have jumped from just 1.57% of total offers made to this group in 2013 to a huge 18% in 2018. However, as many arts subjects admit via portfolio or audition, you might expect offers not linked to A level performance in some cases.
Applicants themselves tended to be positive about unconditional offers, with 72% surveyed by UCAS in 2018 expressing positive views about the practice of universities making unconditional offers. Over 60% of those surveyed this year said that being made a conditional unconditional offer had an impact on their decision on which offer to accept as their firm choice.
Data visualisations by David Kernohan.