The OfS on unconditional offers

The rapid expansion in the number of unconditional offers made to prospective students has been causing alarm but the long-awaited Office for Students report on the issue takes a commendable, balanced view.

Clearly, in some instances – applicants with a non-traditional entry route, mature applicants, those applying via portfolio or audition – an offer that doesn’t rely on the achievement of a specific set of A level grades is warranted. But in other cases it may present a problem. We just don’t yet know how or to whom. So the OfS walks a careful line – taking the issue seriously, but using what evidence exists very carefully.

I’ve looked at the data analysis published alongside the insight report. The latter concludes that the use of unconditional offers needs to be in the interest of students, arguing strongly against the “pressure selling” use of such offers as a breach of consumer law, without actually offering evidence that this is happening. But the data itself is less sensational, and arguably more interesting, because of it.

What condition is your unconditional?

These generally fall under the “openly unconditional” (type A) category where no conditions are placed on the applicant. These have grown, but much of the growth has been in a new type of offer – “conditionally unconditional” (type B). This might seem like a contradiction in terms, but is best described as a conditional offer that becomes unconditional if the applicant makes the offer their first (firm) choice.

Aligned, but not in strict terms unconditional, the low attainment offer makes a token stipulation (usually two Es or similar) about A level results. This was very current in Oxbridge admissions in the 1990s and it is likely that various prominent politicians held such an offer.

The data the OfS has drawn together does not include low attainment offers, or type B offers where the applicant has not made the firm choice. Doing so would make the proportion of offers with an unconditional component a startling 70% higher. As things stand, UCAS suggested that 34.4% of applicants in the most recent cycle had at least one offer with an unconditional component.

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Institutional approaches

We don’t get data on unconditional offers by named institution, but we get the next best thing. Here I’ve plotted total recruitment against the proportion of offers with an unconditional component for two discrete UCAS cycles, 2012 and 2017.

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This plot disguises the central story. Proportions have risen overall, but does it give us a clue as to what institutions that use unconditional offers are like. We can see that smaller institutions – which we can confidently imagine to be specialist institutions – commonly have low tariffs that are correlated with unconditional offers.

But the volume of the change between 2012-17 has come from larger providers increasing their proportion of unconditional offers. Again the data does not show the majority of type B offers.

At a subject level

Though the proportion of unconditional offers by subject has risen for all areas of study (other than medicine and dentistry) creative arts continues to be the most likely subject to make such an offer, displaced only once in the top spot by technology in 2016. The OfS notes that unconditional offers based on portfolio and audition “could be being used more frequently in 2017, and is likely to be part of the increase, but unlikely to account for all of it”. We clearly need more data here.

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Whereas the link between creative arts and admission by means other than A level is well known, it is less easy to tell a convincing story about other subjects.

Graduate attributes

The report notes that applicants from POLAR4 quintiles 1 and 2 were more likely to get an unconditional offer and this is likely to partly correlate with the type of institution such applicants tend to apply to. In this case, an increase in unconditional offers to disadvantaged groups who typically perform less well at A levels can be seen as a sign of a system working as it should.

Around 10% of applicants in any given cycle will not take up a place they have accepted – 1% of these will defer or attend a different provider and the remainder will not enter HE at all. There is currently very little difference between those with unconditional and conditional offers who choose not to attend HE or between those who apply via main scheme or clearing.

One of the main concerns about unconditional offers has been the possibility that applicants would just stop trying – achieving less well at A level (there is limited evidence of this) and thus being more likely not to continue with their studies.

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As the graph above shows there’s not a huge amount of difference other than for some BTEC students. But we also see that those entering via unconditional offers are more likely to be relatively high achieving A level students (AAA).

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Further work

As keeps coming through, there’s more research to be done here. The data analysis documents an attempt to see an effect on non-continuation into the second year of study by using a multi-level regression model, factoring in subject, predicted entry qualifications, sex, ethnicity, disability, and POLAR. The reported results are not statistically significant. But, in 2014 and 2015 at least, the number of students entering via an unconditional offer was comparatively low.

With such a recent phenomenon, more data will be forthcoming and I’m sure OfS will try again in future years. But what data that does exist suggests, in many ways, that the moral panic – as it pertains to the education career of students, at least – may be misguided.

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