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Unconditional surrender. How far should OfS regulate admissions policy?

A new UCAS report looks into the topical issue of unconditional offers. But - asks Ant Bagshaw - is this something that we really need to be concerned about?
This article is more than 5 years old

Ant Bagshaw is a Senior Advisor in L.E.K. Consulting’s Global Education Practice and co-editor, with Debbie McVitty, of Influencing Higher Education Policy

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.

7 responses to “Unconditional surrender. How far should OfS regulate admissions policy?

  1. Is it enough to simply blame the market anymore?

    If a large corporation is caught tax-dodging, any appeals to capitalism or an overbearing welfare state aren’t met with great sympathy. People call for greater regulation and criticise their drive to profit at the expense of others.

    The market is the system we have and, arguably, has many benefits over any previous system. Until we can think of a better one, it doesn’t seem right for the sector to absolve itself of any social responsibility, especially not when we claim to know better in the same breath.

    Rather than reject the idea that unconditional offers have a damaging effect on account of evidence being anecdotal, isn’t it the sector’s responsibility to investigate any potential negative side-effects of their actions and limit these where they occur?

  2. I agree, and we would really benefit from some investigation into the views of teachers and students.

    My institution does not give unconditional offers but I have seen fellow outreach officers from other places in conversation with teachers who are less than pleased about their students being given them. When spoken to privately, outreach colleagues are against these offers and can see the effect they are having, but as front line staff they have to defend them in schools. It becomes their job to try and mitigate the damage to their university’s reputation among the teachers just because of some “recruitment strategy”. Some universities who make U offers say they will speak to students who have them to encourage them to keep working hard at their A Levels, but it reeks of hypocrisy.

    Whenever I speak about this with teachers I am begged to take the message back to our policy makers that we should not make unconditional offers- that’s my anecdotal evidence!

  3. There are three main objections to UOs where applicants are pre-qualification.

    Objection 1: UOs favour students with strong grade predictions, which in turn favours schools that are well resourced and/or have a lot of children drawn from affluent groups (pushy parents lobby for better predictions / make sure children do homework, hire private tutors &c). The objection is based on equality concerns: UOs are another manifestation of privilege, stemming from school attainment gaps. The test of this objection is whether in fact UOs favour some social groups over others and whether they are in fact contrary to the Schwartz principles of fair admissions.There may be evidence to support this proposition but I’ve not been able to find it.

    Objection 2: UOs decentivise students who end up with lower than predicted A-level grades. A 2016 UCAS study suggested that candidates with a firm UO had a higher probabiliity of performing below predictions by up to two grades. You can read the report here:

    Objection 3: UOs bias decision making resulting in applicants eselecting less appropriate courses. The evidence for this would be lower retention rates and worse performance on course. I’m unware of any evidence to support this proposition.

  4. Bradbury- In relation to your third point, when I was working in an admissions office I had a new first year student call me who had accepted an unconditional offer from one of the first universities to start giving them, got three grade Ds, went there and didn’t like it. He rang to say he had always wanted to come to us really but had his head turned by that offer and regretted letting his grades slip. There was nothing we could do for him in October, for the AAB programme that he wanted.

    Should we need masses of evidence from lots of students that this has happened to them, or does the fact that it happened to even one student be enough to want an end to this practice? We know it’s hard to get a full answer from non-continuing students as to why they are leaving- will a university really admit that the answer to that question could be “Actually, it’s down to the unconditional offer you made me, which took me down the wrong path”?

  5. Amy, thanks for sharing the example. But in response to your question, yes we should seek out evidence to strengthen the case. The first year who called you may not have got an AAB offer or may have withdrawn from your programme if he had made the grades. For pretty much everything HE does at least one story might be unearthed which doesn’t have a happy ending, and on this basis every practice could be stopped. OfS I imagine will ask whether lots of UOs have dropped out and whether controlling for other risk factors they are more likely to drop out. Repeating the UCAS study and investigating whether UOs favour already advantaged groups would likewise be welcome.

    Ant Bagshaw in the original post puts the same point more succinctly : “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.”

  6. Would a university drop-out really admit that the answer to that question could be, “Actually, it’s down to me not working hard enough when it counted”?

    Coming from north of the border, we have fewer problems from local qualification-sitters because they’ve obtained their Higher results, but A Levels are rapidly heading into Ouija Board territory and making unconditional offers on the basis of predicted grades strikes me as utter madness.

    The moral of the story is that if you want bums on seats and endless flogging of teaching staff to avoid academic failure at all costs, then pre-qual unconditionals make sound business sense. On the other hand, if you want students to benefit from their studies (channeling Sam, for a moment) then your entry requirements need to be higher than those of a dockyard prostitute.

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