Towards a contextual model of unconditional offers

Unconditional offers are an example of the issues we face as a sector in which our desire to work together, share ideas and develop good practice sits tentatively alongside the competitive market environment we operate in.  

Data released last week shows the multitude of offer-making practices in place. As UCAS acknowledges, there were also significant omissions. The limitations in the methodology mean that, for example, conditional unconditional offers that institutions are making outside the UCAS system are not reported in the latest figures. As a result, this feels like an issue that requires further exploration.

How do we move forward positively and proactively from here?  Both UCAS and the Office for Students (OfS) have encouraged institutions to highlight their learning. So, as one of the universities reported as having made among the highest proportion of unconditional offers, it feels right for us to take the initiative at York St John University.

Behind the headlines

Perhaps inevitably, there weren’t many details reported behind our headline figure of unconditional offers last week, so here are a few. While the sector saw a rapid increase in unconditional offer-making from 2013, we first introduced them in 2016. We did so for students whose predicted grades satisfied our entry requirements. We operated a scholarship scheme to incentivise continued effort at A level or equivalent and, like all GuildHE institutions, we have only ever made what the OfS describes as “openly unconditional” offers, giving applicants a straight choice, rather than the offer being dependant on the applicant making us their firm selection.

Of greater significance for shared learning is the change we have made to our offer scheme for 2019 entry, which moves to a points-based contextual offer model. In the second half of 2018, as our new long-term university strategy was finalised, cognisant of the growing debate in the sector, we initiated a review of our offer-making practice. We wanted any change in approach to be evidence-based, so we conducted and commissioned a range of research to develop our understanding.  

We carried out a detailed analysis of first-year attainment and retention for all students who joined us in 2017, surveyed over 380 of our 2018 intake who had received an unconditional offer and commissioned independent research into the views of over 300 prospective applicants and a selection of colleagues in schools and further education. Throughout we were asking about open unconditional offers rather than conditional unconditional offers.

We found that overall attitudes towards unconditional offers are more positive than negative, with some risk to reputation for the university. Unconditional offers can be a factor in decision-making, but they are more likely to shore up an existing preference than sway an opinion decisively. Other factors, particularly the course, are more important in determining an applicant’s preference. Once students have joined us, we found that across our entire 2017 intake there was no significant difference in terms of first-year attainment, or retention between students who had come through unconditional or conditional offers.  

The idea of using a contextual offer scheme to widen access was broadly well received by prospective applicants and by those working in schools and further education. In considering a contextual scheme, emphasis was placed on the importance of explaining it effectively and transparently, so that nobody would be seen to lose out because of the use of contextual offers.

Opportunity and excellence

We considered various options. Our points-based model, connecting unconditional offers much more closely to contextual information alongside academic information on applicants was the result.  In line with recognised best practice, this new model takes account of multiple contextual factors (not just POLAR data), helping us promote a diverse campus of learners. The scheme is called “Opportunity and Excellence” to reflect the twin aims of widening access and recognising high academic standards.

The scheme takes into account a combination of predicted grades, personal statement, references and the contextual information available to us through the UCAS application process to determine whether we make an applicant either a standard conditional, unconditional, or reduced points offer. In designing the system we have drawn on consultation with expert external bodies and OfS guidance on access and participation.

Our approach means that the bar for receiving an unconditional offer has been set at a higher level and is deployed transparently. Unconditional offers are made to applicants with very high predicted grades (144 points or AAA) and to applicants who experience a combination of circumstances that are recognised barriers to entering higher education. The UCAS application enables us to take account of the level of deprivation in the place where an applicant lives, the past results of the school or college an applicant attends and whether the applicant is a mature student, has a disability, has spent time in care, or is the first in their family to enter higher education. Points are allocated depending on how many of these factors apply.

Applicants can continue to select us as their first or second preference through UCAS whilst keeping their unconditional or reduced points offer.  

Learning together

OfS acknowledges the view that “unconditional offers have a legitimate and useful place in the university admissions system”. Our new scheme will see us reduce the number of unconditional offers we make this year by more than half and use more of the unconditional offers we do make to directly support those who experience the greatest barriers to entering higher education. We do not see our new scheme as a definitive model and we will keep learning and reviewing. However, this is our genuine attempt to look at the evidence that is available, do something different and introduce a scheme more focused on widening access and rewarding academic excellence, and aligned with the equity of opportunity that our university and others value.

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