Did the Universities UK compact on conditional offer making hold in 2022?

Following ministerial diktats and then regulation, responsibility for policing the use of "conditional unconditional" offer making passed to the sector midway through the 2022 cycle.

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

A “conditional unconditional” offer is a standard offer, conditional on meeting entry requirements, that is converted to an unconditional offer should the applicant make it their firm (or, occasionally, insurance) choice.

Such offers were banned by the temporary Office for Students condition of registration Z3 between 3 July 2020 and 30 September 2021. This followed an intervention by then higher education minister Michelle Donelan back on 23 March 2020 that set a clear policy direction away from this practice.

On 7 March 2022, sector representative body Universities UK put controls of this kind of offer making on to a voluntary footing – with providers signing up to a code of practice that included a section that compelled them to:

avoid applying pressure through their offer making practices, including by avoiding the use of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, restricting the use of unconditional offers to specific circumstances, and using incentives appropriately and transparently

Mind the gap

You may have spotted that there is a gap here – for the first months of the 2022 cycle (including the October, and January deadlines, and although 2022 saw the provider response deadline move from March to June the majority of main scheme offer making) there were no controls on conditional unconditional offers in place.

From the UCAS end of cycle data just two providers really took advantage of this lacuna – the University of Hull (which made 4,245 such offers – some 73 per cent of all offers the university made), and the University of Derby (3,755, 46 per cent). The University of Lincoln also shows a small number (55) of conditional unconditional offers.

Once Hull and Derby signed the agreement, both stopped making such offers – but the majority of 2022 offer making had already been done. As Ella Kirkbride, Head of Admissions and Applicant Services at Hull, told me:

Our offer strategy for 2023 is compliant with the Fair Admissions Code and we are committed to its aims and principles. The University did not make any conditional unconditional offers after signing this code of practice, however we honoured those offers that had been made prior to signing

What happened next?

Hull accepted 2,350 undergraduate students in the main scheme of the 2022 cycle. During the early part of the cycle it advertised a guaranteed entry deal for applicants to the majority of courses – including a three year Railcard, free sports and fitness centre membership and a £100 catering voucher. Locking in a guaranteed place like this would also have offered students an early chance to secure their preferred accommodation for the year. And of course, it took a bit of the pressure off students facing A levels.

This offer making pattern didn’t make a huge difference to recruitment – Hull recruited an extra 245 main scheme applicants over 2021. The proportion entering with “other” qualifications (not A levels, BTECs, Access to HE, SQA, etc) actually dropped.

The arguments for and against conditional unconditional offers have long been rehearsed – critics claim that the promise of an unconditional offer can distort decision making and put pressure on students, advocates say that a careful contextual use of these offers can open up participation to underrepresented groups of students. For the moment, the argument has been settled – most universities have signed up to the UUK pledge.

This year may be the last time we see such offers made – won’t it be fascinating to see how continuation and completion rates from this cohort at these two providers compare to the rest of the sector?

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