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UCAS on unconditional offers: the last days of the gold standard?

David Kernohan examines data and reasons for various kinds of unconditional offer from the latest UCAS release.
This article is more than 4 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Two major data releases about unconditional offers in two months – sector agencies are really spoiling us. But, whatever you feel about the moral panic aspects (we’re still waiting on the data that demonstrates detriment… and prospective students are keen on them), this is an unprecedented and fascinating look at institutional offer-making behaviour.

As with Brexit, there’s a whole new terminology to get our collective heads around. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Unconditional offer – an offer made by a provider to an applicant where the former is satisfied that the latter meets their academic requirements and has potential to do well on the programme they are applying to, whatever their A level results turn out to be.
  • Conditional offer – the “traditional” offer made to applicants, which specifies a set A level performance required for admission to a programme.
  • Conditional unconditional offer – An offer that was conditional until an applicant firmly accepts it (as a first choice), at which point it becomes unconditional. Those that become unconditional are included in the “unconditional offer” category.
  • Offer with an unconditional component – Any offer that has an unconditional component – so straight-ahead unconditional offers, and all conditional unconditional offers whether or not they have become firmly accepted.

This report from UCAS covers 18 year old main scheme applicants domiciled in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland (applications in Scotland are different).

This data is primarily provided on a set of PDF files which allow institutions to mount a TEF-style defence of their offer-making behavior. Where we’ve mentioned an individual institution below, we’ve included parts of this text in the article. And we would urge you not to use this data to form opinions about a particular institution without reading the provided perspective – we’ve included UCAS codes on visualisations to help you do this.

It took a long time to get the data in a useable form from UCAS, but it’s here and we’ve plotted it. There’s five tabs, allowing you to look at numbers of each category of offer by types of institution, on a timeline by provider by raw values and proportion of total offers, and as institutional ranks by both value and proportion for a given year. Each allows you to choose the type of offer you are interested in by the categories above.

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Pump up the volume

Looking at raw numbers for 2018, we see three large modern institutions and one from the Russell Group offering large numbers of offers with an unconditional component (OUC).

Nottingham Trent University (8,660 OUC – a name you’ll be familiar with from our other article) says that their “unconditional offer scheme is targeted at high performing applicants”. The University of Lincoln (6,150 OUC) note they have “has carefully designed and evaluated a scheme which fits our mission and is based on seeking applicants who will succeed at the university”, while Sheffield Hallam (5,835 OUC) makes it clear that “Unconditional offers are only made to applicants for appropriate courses who meet specific criteria, which are reviewed on an annual basis”.

The University of Birmingham (4,765 OUC) provides context around the experience of students that hold their unconditional offers – finding that such students are no more likely to leave their studies, and do not see a level 3 attainment gap. Again, such offers are “a small part of a wider and well-developed admissions strategy, that has a firm focus on supporting students to make the right choice for them”. This provides quite a contrast to the University of Nottingham (a little further down, with 2,925 OUC) who have told us that “it intends to end the use of unconditional offers”.

However, these are great examples of defences for unconditional offers, but not for conditional unconditional offers – the volume graph for these looks very similar. There are few arguments for conditional unconditional offers to be found in the supporting statements – and the idea of making an unconditional offer only if the applicant makes a firm commitment sails closer to “pressure sales” than anything else in this dataset.

A sense of proportion

When we look at the proportion of all offers that have an unconditional component in 2018, another picture emerges. Top of the list here is a specialist arts institution, the Plymouth College of Art (89% OUC). Unconditional offers “form the basis of the admissions process” alongside a portfolio-based interview, allowing “HE academic staff to assess the creative achievement of applicants, and their potential to succeed at degree level study”.

In contrast, the University of Suffolk (83.8% OUC) is a more widely based mainstream provider, but uses unconditional offers primarily within the arts and health programmes where there has been “a successful interview or portfolio review” – noting that the majority of applicants achieved the minimum tariffs required for entry even if they had an unconditional offer”. York St John University (78.8%) relies on contextual information in making unconditional offers “to those whose predicted grates matched or exceed our entry requirements” – finding no difference in academic performance or non-continuation.

But at the University of Bolton (75.7% OUC) has “taken the decision to no longer make unconditional offers on predicted grades” from 2019/20.

What’s going on?

For institutions making a large volume or proportion of offers with an unconditional component, this seems to be a deliberate and considered strategic choice – often with monitoring data demonstrating no detriment to students in terms of non-continuation or level three performance.

There’s room, therefore, for the counterfactual – that unconditional offers are growing for sound reasons of widening access and participation to prospective students that are demographically unlikely to perform well at A level. Certainly comments from agencies have been more muted – with less apocalyptic shrieking about “pressure selling”, than last week.

That said, the suspicion still lingers – mostly in the form of the “conditional unconditional offer”. We should not shrink from demanding the answers from institutions that are not given here.

So it’s odd to end half agreeing with UCU – they’ve used this release to give vent to their continued interest in a system of post-qualifications admission. But their call for a radical overhaul is misplaced – it’s not the admissions process that is causing problems, it is the continued structural demographic inequalities within A level performance. Our “gold standard” level 3 indicator of academic ability is clearly no longer fit for purpose. It is time to leave it behind.

2 responses to “UCAS on unconditional offers: the last days of the gold standard?

  1. You totally miss the point. It is the fact privately educated students do on average 12% worse than their state dedicated brethren that is the problem not A levels- unis are trying to level the playing field.

  2. @Julian – an interesting point, but it all depends how you cut the data. this is an instructive read.

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