The meteoric rise of the unconditional offer

Clearing this year has felt very different. In conversations with colleagues across the sector, the general comment has been how quiet it has been in clearing rooms this year.

We were prepared for the reduced number of 18 year-olds in secondary education who could enter HE, and the trend of Russell Group institutions increasingly reducing their entry requirements to hold onto applicants with conditional offers during confirmation has continued. But the meteoric rise of the unconditional offer has been a surprise and seems to have come for many out of left field.

Unconditional offers have long been used in a range of circumstances, especially for those who already have their qualifications. However, the growth in their use has been truly remarkable. It hasn’t gone unnoticed in the press. In 2013, there were 2,985 unconditional offers but this year they numbered 67,915 – a phenomenal growth of 2,175%, according to UCAS. This means 22.9% of applicants received an unconditional offer in this cycle.

As well as media attention, their rise has attracted criticism from Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the universities and colleges union and from universities minister Sam Gyimah. The latter accused universities of acting in an irresponsible manner and only being interested in “bums on seats”.

The competition to recruit students since the removal of the cap on student numbers and the 2012 tuition fee rise has led universities to attempt to find innovative ways to increase numbers. The unconditional offer is one. A few years ago, iPads, grants to reduce fees and gym membership were common incentives. This year, the promise of turning a conditional firm (you’re in if you meet the conditions) or unconditional offer (no conditions) to an unconditional firm (you’re in) if the applicant selects the institution as its first choice, has taken centre stage.

But given the weight of criticism levelled at this method, we should think through the pros and cons, both to the institution and to the student.

Pros for the student

Students who have lost their conditional firm place due to missing out on their entry requirements have to go into clearing, and face a number of other stresses and challenges. Choosing a university and planning all the associated activities around it such selecting a course, exploring the area where the institution is situated and finding accommodation takes time, energy and money. The stress on applicants and parents/guardians to do this in a matter of a couple of weeks before the start of the new academic year is a huge ask.

Further, a student who has spent the past few months visualising themselves at their first choice university and has started making connections with other offer holders and staff (as we encourage applicants to do) suddenly has this path removed if they miss their offer. It is a stressful transition period and one which can be a trigger for mental health issues, already on the rise in HE, as evidenced by the recent report Not by degrees: improving student mental health in UK universities from the Institute for Public Policy Research.

And if an institution doesn’t require that the unconditional offer has to be their first choice, they can put it as their insurance. Applicants can then be encouraged to have a plan B and look at and be aware of accommodation choices at their insurance university. If a student wants to stay local and live from home to reduce study costs, this option is valuable.

Cons for the student

If an applicant puts an institution as an unconditional firm but later change their mind, it can make moving to another university difficult. It may also be tempting for an applicant to accept an unconditional firm place on a course that they didn’t originally apply for but were offered as an alternative, thinking that as long as they got into their desired university, they could transfer if they don’t like it. This is a big gamble, especially with the costs associated with HE such as fees and accommodation contracts. This adds to the stress and anxiety of a life transition that should be exciting.

Accepting an unconditional firm – especially if they are not sure about the course is a gamble for students. Once they accept, they lose their second choice. If they do change their mind, they have to be released from the contract and then go into clearing. And there are no guarantees that they would find an appropriate course once in clearing.

Pros for the university

There are a number of advantages for universities, including having a better idea of expected student numbers. This enables incoming students to engage with the university, which should hopefully help them feel a sense of belonging to the institution and, in turn, help with retention, progression and attainment.

It also makes it easier to allocate resources, plan and publish draft teaching timetables in advance to help students and staff. It allows us to be “demand-led” and avoid last-minute panic. A huge financial win is not incurring the massive cost of administrative and academic staff time to staff the phones during clearing.

Cons for the university

This approach could reduce incoming stress and anxiety levels for the student, but we don’t know what its impact will be on mental health and resilience levels. Nor do we know what the impact on learning for the institution could be. A major criticism levelled at applicants being given an unconditional firm is that with a secure place, they will not put themselves under pressure to achieve their predicted grades. This in turn could increase stress levels once at university, where they will be expected to become independent learners and face the pressures of exams that will impact on their final classification.

Known and unknown unknowns

This is new territory for the sector, and it’s probably a bad idea to allow anecdotal evidence to drive initiatives to support incoming students. It will be critical for institutions across the sector to track applicants who have accepted an unconditional offer/unconditional firm and look at not only their results, but where they went, their progression, attainment and success in study.

There is no doubt that this will revive the debate on whether it’s time to move to a post-qualification admissions system, as well as discussion surrounding university autonomy in setting their admissions strategy. The benefits for students of knowing where they are going are numerous. But are universities prepared to support a dramatic change in the admissions process? And does the government or its new regulator have the will and stomach to drive it forward?

7 responses to “The meteoric rise of the unconditional offer

  1. Yes reducing the impact on the well-being of students transitioning may be a reason but once a student much work left to do. Still a big disco next between expectations of students and expectations by students. These can be addressed, and are being by a number of HEIs I’ve recently worked with, but that’s where the focus should be in my view.

  2. Totally agree with you Peter. Managing expectations and experiences at every transition stage in, through and out is essential.

  3. Another issue in relationship to unconditional offers is the increased inequality it creates. Students with higher predicted grades (who tend to come from more privileged backgrounds) suddenly have a lot of stress taken off them, as well as potential extra cash incentives if they meet certain grades, whereas those less advantaged students still have to deal with all the stress of A-levels and meeting their offer requirements.

  4. Our experience of this is that my son who received a conditional offer and did not apply for halls of residence until he had received his grades (which he did) at NTU has now no accommodation. We have been told there has been a unprecedented increase in students taking up unconditional offers and the accommodation, clearing students have also been given priority over him.
    Unfortunately we didn’t have £200 to pay the deposit if he didn’t get in, to pay again if he had to go through clearing.
    I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

  5. This is not as new an issue as is made out to be.

    For many decades Oxford and Cambridge made offers based on minimum matriculation requirements – ie 2 x Es at A Level. The reason? They had another recruitment method – the entrance examination and the interview. It was only because of the inherent bias against students from non-traditional backgrounds in that method, that it changed (very gradually) to one based on conditional offers, where the highest grades were demanded. It seems though that the bias still exists.

    The practice of offers based on minimum matriculation requirements does still carry on in a number of conservatoire and other specialist institutions where candidates are selected by audition and talent rather than grades, much to the confusion of parents who assume that the grades required has something to with the quality of education rather than just a method of managing demand.

    The introduction of unconditional offers for a clearly defined group of progressing students from school/college is an attempt to bend the stick of the University admissions lottery in favour of those against whom it is clearly biased.

    Universities are self-governing and will always find ways of dealing with the overly rigid state-sponsored system of school/college assessment and the biases of the education system.

    The only way that this can be changed is for the state school/college systems to recognise that it is they that need to change the way they relate to the process of admission, primarily by providing results earlier. The onus is therefore on the polticians in charge of the various education departments in the devolved administrations to come up with solutions, not the Universities. Regrettably the line of travel in England in particular is the other way, by for example the virtual abolition of the split of sixth form education into distinct stages and cumulative outcomes in favour of the big bang of final examinations, long abandoned by most universities as not fit for purpose.

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