Let’s stop using unconditional offers as an incentive.

2018 saw one of the most competitive clearing and confirmation periods ever. Universities across the board adopted the use of unconditional offers in greater numbers than ever.

And since the government’s removal of the student number cap in 2012 increased competition in the student recruitment marketplace has sharpened the focus on tariff requirements and offer making strategies like never before. There’s a proliferation of negative stories swirling around the sector and the marketisation of HE is being blamed for many things including the potential financial collapse of a number of UK universities.

UCAS have received several FOI requests relating to the number of unconditional offers made during this 2018 cycle and as a result will be publishing detailed provider level data. Universities will get this data in December and it will then be made public in January 2019. Get the tin hats ready. The OFS are also watching the situation closely. This data will shine a very bright and uncomfortable light on the scale of this situation. The number of unconditional offers made to 18 year olds in 2011 was nearly 3000. In 2017 it was more than 50,000 and in 2018 it is beyond 80,000. Where does this end?

Why and for who?

When one considers more closely the spectacular increase in the use of unconditional offers to this age group it is important to examine why this is happening and for whose benefit? Historically the role of these offers has been to match the circumstances of individual applicants whether relating to challenges concerning their personal circumstances, challenging learning environments and situations around anxiety and mental health. As well as this the nature of certain courses coupled with rigorous application and interview processes might also have made such offers the right way forward. But is this really what’s happening in sector now? The published UCAS data tells us that in 2018 these offers increased across every subject group. So are universities now using unconditional offers as a marketing weapon that’s not based around individual circumstances but based on the financial imperative of securing the commitment of a potential student and in turn the funding that goes with that commitment?

It’s important to recognise the flip side of unconditional offer making. That is the negative impact on institutions themselves around retention, on students relating to attainment and on schools relating to behaviour and commitment to learning. Today’s UCAS end of cycle report for 2018 clearly acknowledges the negative effect these unconditional offers have on attainment levels. As a result some universities that operate in very challenging participation areas are facing pleas from their key feeder schools not to offer unconditionally. This point can prove most challenging for newer universities and those in the lower half of the rankings as they are likely to recruit more specifically from certain polar groups and their feeder schools will be the ones that are most challenged by their students’ reactions to receiving unconditional offers.

What can be done?

So what, if anything, should the sector be doing about this situation? In October at The Know (our regular debating forum for HE leadership), 35 representatives of UK Universities along with people from the Department of Education, Wonkhe, SMRS and The Student Room debated this issue at length. There was a clear acknowledgement amongst those in the room that unconditional offers were now being used as a marketing strategy and that if action was not taken by the sector itself then the spectre of legislation would potentially follow.

In the room were Russell Group universities, post 92 institutions, private providers and pathway organisations. It was fascinating to hear the passionate opinions and to listen to how the marketisation of HE and the surge in the use of these offers by competitors had forced the hand of institutions who had previously stood firm against this tactic. Recently St Mary’s University have taken the decision to stop making unconditional offers but Bath Spa have decided to make unconditional offers universally available through their 3.2.1 go scheme if certain criteria are met.

It’s time for universities to stop using unconditional offers as part of a marketing strategy. After all these offers were never meant to be an incentive to be compared with accommodation discounts and free ipads. I don’t think it is time for a blanket ban – although plenty of people at The Know were advocating that.

But it is time to agree specific guidelines around when their use is both appropriate and valuable and all the processes that are involved. In that way we can continue to drive attainment, support individuals to meet their challenges and make sure students arrive at university ready for what is to come. That was after all how these offers were used previously and this approach will be much less damaging for universities and students.

3 responses to “Let’s stop using unconditional offers as an incentive.

  1. UCAS found the same effect in a 2016 study: candidates with a firm UO had a higher probabiliity of performing below predictions by up to two grades.

    https://www.ucas.com/file/71796/download?token=D4uuSzur

    But does the result make sense? If applicants were set a higher tariff than they currently are, would their results improve? In other words, is any kind of differential offer actually a disservice to students?!

    It is refreshing that a marketeer writes that (if there is a problem) marketing is a potential cause rather than a solution. But there other rational causes for the increase in UOs and also reasons why fewer UOs could lead to worse outcomes.

    1) A-level reform: deterioration in reliability of predicted grades might cause selectors to attach greater weight to GCSEs and a UCAS reference and less weight to A-levels.

    2) UCAS clearing: a rushed and volatile end of cycle process that tries to match candidates with unfilled places. Step back for a moment and consider what goes on in the hurly-burly of confirmation and clearing – noboidy is jumping up and down about this. If UOs make predicting the student intake easier, lessening reliance on clearing, that’s not a bad thing.

    THE UCAS report finds that UOs are made across all of the income quintiles – that’s a positive finding. And there is still no evidence (at least none that can be readily identified) to support the view that progression and completion rates for UO holders are any worse than for comparable students not receiving UOs.

    Is concern about UOs really a generalised concern about marketisation and/or just another manifestation of a desire to regulate and stifle competition!?

  2. One key point that hasn’t been picked up in the context of unconditional offers is that a significant proportion of the places given are for entry into foundation years. Therefore increasing the amount of debt these students will graduate with and the burden on the loans system. With entry into foundation years a students A-Level results mean very little to the university as they are effectively repeating the level 3 study and filtering students into their main degree programmes, therefore this could be an explanation about why there is no difference in progression and completion rates of these students.

    Schemes which were designed to support widening participation are now being used to scoop up large numbers of students in a competitive market. Rather than creating an efficient market the marketization of higher education has increased the burden on the tax payer.

  3. The press comments also seem to have overlooked the other story within the UCAS analysis; that the majority of ALL students miss their predicted grades by 1-2 points. Their own analysis shows that of the 65,230 students that miss their predicted grades by 2+ points, an estimated 1.6% of them or 1015 held an unconditional firm offer. Surely the big story here is not about unconditional offers, but instead there is a sector wide issue with the over inflation of predicted grades.

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