In defence of conditional unconditional offers

Damian Hinds has returned to his intervention on conditional unconditional offers – arguing again that conditional unconditionals count as “pressure selling”. It has opened up yet again the debate over the ‘morality and integrity’ of institutions providing this type of offer.

Recently twenty-three universities were publicly named as the worst offenders. Two universities (Birmingham and Oxford Brookes) have doubled down on their defence of the practice, while others have sought further discussions. Pressure selling of any kind is not ethical, but my fear as a result of the current atmosphere is a complete backlash against the concept of the conditional unconditional offer which could result in some widening participation applicants not being able to enter HE. But how far is the practice defensible?

Entry grades rule

Applications to UCAS rose from from 405,000 in 1994 to 700,000 in 2018 helped by the increase in EU and overseas applications. As a result, the challenge for institutions in processing high levels of applications within a small window has increased. Common admission practice for numerous years has been that if a student is predicted to get the required entry grades they are “in” without the supporting statement necessarily being read and if they don’t they are rejected. The admissions process has become increasingly mechanised as a result of the pressure to turn an offer around quickly especially as the market has recently been an applicant rather than a provider led one. This is in part due to a decreasing 18 year old population until 2020, and the cap coming off student numbers in 2012 to drive competition. The marketing rule is that those who get the offer out the quickest are likely to get the applicant as it shows a commitment to the application. Small universities are more likely to be able to read most of the supporting statements before an offer is made, simply because of the scale of applications.

If at this point in the cycle applicants are given a conditional offer based only on predicted grades and in the offer letter the opportunity to “upgrade” to an unconditional offer if they put the university first, this behaviour is highly questionable. However, if the supporting statement has been read, an interview has taken place, or a portfolio viewed before an offer of any kind has gone out then a contextual unconditional offer may be appropriate. It is also important to note that much of the increase in unconditional offers in the past few years have been in the area of portfolio courses.

In light of the above, the challenge is how to manage the applications of those who have received a quick-turnaround automatic conditional offer because they meet the entry requirements but their interview or invitation to attend an applicant day occurs after the conditional offer has been sent?

If the conditional offer gets upgraded to an unconditional after one of those activities, this is recorded as a conditional unconditional offer. This does not make it a bad thing – the change can be very valuable to the applicant.

Here are three examples. All the applicants have a small number of institutions that they can attend due to their individual requirements and would like to attend a specific university. They were automatically sent a conditional offer based on their predicted grades which if they miss will potentially result in them having to go through clearing, and cause uncertainty and all the added stress that this process incurs.

  • Applicant one – A single parent who has gone back to college to do A levels and needs to study at their local university due to their child being settled in school in the area.
  • Applicant two – A disabled wheelchair user needs a campus that is flat and easily accessible not only to get to but to move around. The options for the course they wish to do at accessible university campuses are limited. They also need guaranteed disabled friendly university accommodation.
  • Applicant three – The applicant has mental health issues and needs to live at home in order to continue to access their NHS support. Their A levels are primarily portfolio based and they wish to undertake a similar university course.

By upgrading their conditional to an unconditional especially if they put the institution first is not pressure selling. It is enabling these applicants to be in control of their learning journey.

The offer process

Applicants and teachers put effort into writing the supporting statements and they can be insightful in painting a picture of the applicant. It could result in an application that would have been given an offer based on grades alone being rejected, a rejected application being accepted, or both being invited to interview. We also know that predicted grades are not always accurate and that actual A level results do not always reflect degree outcomes.

If the process was not quite so mechanised then there would be time to make more considered offers. Also, maybe the number of students who were rejected through the process by an institution but then accepted by them through clearing because their grades were better than predicted would also reduce.

The future

It will be a bold university, small or large, that makes the promise that all offers will be based on every statement being read – and where there is a borderline rejection, the applicant will be called for interview before an offer decision is made. However, this will mean the offer process will take longer. And this must not be fudged by admissions software that produces offers that appear that statements have been read. With the expected rapid increase in student numbers due to enter university I suspect that the number of conditional unconditional offers made as a result of trying to quickly capture a slice of the market will reduce anyway. What is critical is that the concept of the conditional unconditional is not is not discarded because of the current atmosphere.

It would be very sensible is for every institution to make UCAS’s excellent Admissions Guidance on Offers accessible on their admissions pages for applicants, parents and staff in schools, colleges and HE to access – with honest and transparent advice on offering making choices.

As the sector faces a potential rapid growth in student numbers, maybe Minsters Damian Hinds and Chris Skidmore should collaboratively be looking at evaluating how effective the transition between school/college and university is – starting with a serious discussion on the introduction of a Post Qualification Admissions System, which will also have to deal with potential issue of making offers only based on actual grades achieved.

4 responses to “In defence of conditional unconditional offers

  1. Thanks Michelle – for the 3 examples you include could the the offers simply be made unconditional after the applicant’s circumstances are further explored? Why add the condition that the applicant makes an institution their first choice? This approach might remove the ‘pressure selling’ tag and focus simply on that student’s specific requirements?

  2. Hi Dan. Yes and I agree with you. An applicant who gets an unconditional offer should be allowed to have it as their firm choice or as their insurance. If an applicant is told that a conditional offer will only be changed to an unconditional offer if they put the institution first is wrong and should be viewed as pressure selling. If an applicant chooses to accept the unconditional offer either as a firm or insurance choice, it is still a conditional offer going to an unconditional offer.

  3. The strongest defence of conditional unconditionals is that for ‘receiving institutions’ with a widening participation mission, those applicants who have predicted grades from local or partner state school teachers are likely to have their transition improved by this type of offer. While there has always been a strong correlation between entry grades and degree performance for those at the very top and very bottom of the achievement continuum, this is much weaker in the middle of the spectrum where the vast majority of applicants sit. A fall or rise of a few grades/points compared to the grades required for those in the middle is unlikely to have a significant effect on degree performance, but in due course we may see evidence that those with unconditional offers not facing the stress of highly specific conditional entry grades may have better transition and ultimately better outcomes than the grades’ lottery.

    Of course the pitch is muddied by the inevitability that predicted grades for those in private education are bound to be over-inflated – that’s what parents who pay for private education expect. But that should not blind us to the clear advantages of a smooth transition between school/college and university for the large middle part of the spectrum.

  4. > “Of course the pitch is muddied by the inevitability that predicted grades for those in private education are bound to be over-inflated – that’s what parents who pay for private education expect. ”

    In fact the opposite is true. UCU did some research on this in 2016 and found that grade predictions for independent school pupils were significantly *less* inflated than state schools. Independent schools were more likely to accurately predict pupils’ A-level grades than any of the various forms of state education, and also the most likely to under-predict. Even where they overpredicted, the amount of overprediction was lower than for state schools.

    Source: https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/8409/Predicted-grades-accuracy-and-impact-Dec-16/pdf/Predicted_grades_report_Dec2016.pdf

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