Between 2013 and 2017, the proportion of “unconditional offers” made to undergraduate applicants has risen from 0.4% to 7.1%. The straightforward description of UCAS’s latest report – Unconditional offers: an update for 2018 – masks an explosive issue.
Cue alarm at the very highest levels! Universities minister Sam Gyimah said:
Along with the Office for Students, I am closely monitoring the number being issued and fully expect the regulator to take appropriate action. Unconditional offers risk distracting students from the final year of their schooling, and swaying their decisions does them a disservice – universities must act in the interest of students, not in filling spaces.
But how can this idea be implemented in ways consistent with the requirement that OfS respect institutional autonomy? Surely the choice to admit a student – an academic decision (with commercial implications, of course) – sits squarely within the purview of the institution.
The Department for Education’s “further information” on the ministerial quote says that: “The increase in unconditional offers runs the risk of admitting students who will not benefit from the courses. This rise risks students making the wrong decision for their futures, and is irresponsible of universities.” It could be true, but do we have the evidence? This is a case of anecdote driving policy without a full exploration of whether the problem is a significant one, or what the solutions might be.
Reasons to be cautious
It’s clear that there’s been significant growth in unconditional offers in recent years. In 2017, nearly 23% of all applicants received an unconditional offer, up from 1% in 2013. And as you would imagine, there’s been a corresponding growth in the number of students accepting those offers – 42,100 – up 40% on the previous year.
Why is this? There are two basic reasons, the first of which is simply that the student recruitment market is getting more aggressive and so “locking in” students with unconditional offers is another tool in the recruiter’s armoury. With many universities facing significant drops in recruitment with a dearth of standard age home students, those tools are going to be used to the full. And the second reason is that everyone else is doing it. If the competition is doing it, so should we.
And while I don’t agree that unconditional offers pose a problem – from the point of view of universities – I shouldn’t completely ignore the complaint that applicants ease up and lose focus enough on their pre-entry studies. It’s not just the individual school pupil but there’s concern that, within a cohort, the distraction of some pupils holding unconditionals has a negative effect on their classmates. While we’re on anecdote, I’ve also heard that some schools are responding by refusing access to university recruiters from institutions deploying lots of unconditional offers.
Why I don’t share the panic
The growth in unconditional offers maps pretty closely to the growth in the proportion of first class degrees awarded. Admissions policy isn’t a standalone activity, sealed off from the full breadth of higher education policy, and nor are academic standards. In both of these cases – the topical causes of ministerial angst – we need to understand that these are the natural consequences of the marketised system.
Incentivise universities to recruit as many students as possible, keep them as long as possible (so no-one fails), aim to keep them “satisfied”, and send them out into the world having acquired the “consumer good” that is the education they have paid for. Why blame the universities for doing exactly what was asked of them? If you want different outcomes, change the incentives. But the constant cry of “something must be done” risks distracting the regulator from things that could actually benefit students. And, while we’re at it, it’s a waste of time to ask nicely for providers to take action when – just like with vice chancellors’ pay – we know that that’s not a way to change behaviour in a meaningful way. Universities should have respect for the impact of their decisions on schools and colleges, but the overriding pressure to recruit – the self-interest – will always likely trump a willingness to prioritise others.
Forget the headlines, think about the policy
Rather than cry foul at every new report, and every data release in the sector, the minister should think about why we’re here. And, if he doesn’t like the symptoms, spend more time looking at the causes. The marketisation of higher education has driven the growth in unconditional offers (among other less-than-ideal results): if you don’t like the consequences, offer something different. As for OfS, it could be a more effective regulator if it weren’t buffeted by the latest whim of a minister in search of a headline.