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The Office for Students has increased pressure on universities to halt the “dramatic” rise in unconditional offers, particularly those with “strings attached”.

Publishing a new paper analysing growth in the number of unconditional offers and their impact, the OfS warned higher education providers that indiscriminate use of unconditional offers is akin to “pressure selling” and could put them in breach of consumer law.

There has been a dramatic increase in unconditional offers made over the past five years. Some 87,540 university candidates – representing 34.4 per cent of 18 year old applicants - received an offer that could be considered unconditional last year, according to the UCAS 2018 End of Cycle Report. At some schools, nearly half of the sixth form received unconditional offers. UCAS is planning to publish another report soon that will identify universities where the highest proportion of offers made are unconditional.

The OfS said it is particularly concerned about admissions offices which require students to make the unconditional offer their firm choice – described in the new paper, Unconditional offers: Serving the interests of students?, as “conditional unconditional offers”. More than half of unconditional offers fall into this category.

The paper found that applicants who accepted an unconditional offer were more likely to miss their predicted grades by two or more grades. Modelling estimates that, in 2018, more than 1,000 18-year-olds missed their predicted A-level grades by two or more grades through holding an unconditional firm offer.

Institutions which justify unconditional offers as a tool to increase access for disadvantaged students should instead use contextual offer-making, where entry grades are lowered for some applicants, it says.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, warned vice chancellors that the regulator would intervene if the practice of unconditional offers was having an “obvious negative impact”.

She added: “It is plainly not in students’ interests to push them to accept an offer that may not be their best option. Whatever admissions practices universities choose to use, they should clearly be encouraging students to make the decision that is right for them, and not the decision that best suits the university. If we identify cases where unconditional offers are having an obvious negative impact on students’ choices or outcomes, we are of course prepared to intervene.”

Schools and colleges have raised concerns about the impact of unconditional offers on pupils’ motivation and retention, particularly those offers which tie students in, rather than allowing them to aim for an institution that they might otherwise prefer. Students who “take their foot off the gas” can also have their job prospects ruined later down the line if potential employers take into account their A-level grades, they warn.

At the end of last year, a group of vice chancellors, head teacher representatives from the state and private sectors and academy trust chief executives called on universities to stop issuing “conditional unconditional” offers, but pulled up short of demanding an outright ban. The group said the trend in requiring students to accept a firm offer in return for a guaranteed place was effectively “compelling pupils” and limiting their choice.

Universities which put their names to the proposal included Brunel University, King’s College London, Chichester, Hertfordshire, the University of the West of England and Bath. St Mary’s Twickenham has made the decision to no longer make unconditional offers, after finding that some pupils then fell short of their expected grades.

In Sheffield, the city’s two universities have opposing views. Sheffield Hallam made “hundreds of unconditional offers” out of the cohort of over 7,000 undergraduates it recruited last year.

Professor Chris Husbands, the vice chancellor, explained: “We don’t use them to put bums on seats; we use them to position ourselves at the top end of the attainment range and attract a high calibre of students. These are students who are going to university, and I want them to come here and not to a university down the road.” The university said it carefully followed the performance of its unconditional offer students and found no difference in their attainment or later outcomes.

On the other side of the city centre, at Sheffield University, Dr Christina Edgar, Director of Recruitment, said making offers conditional on exam grades helped students to deal with the academic rigour of university.

“It’s going to be important for students once they come to university to thrive under the conditions of university and that includes working to deadlines and that sense of pressure and the importance of doing well in exams and other types of assessments,” she said. The UCAS data confirms that students with an offer of that type (unconditional) are more likely to do less well and so we think it’s really important for students to strive for the best they can.”

A similar division is about to operate in the South West of England. Bath Spa University has announced that this year, every applicant that impresses tutors through a new system of face-to-face interviews or auditions, or through their portfolio work, will be given an unconditional offer.

Mike Nicholson, head of admissions at Bath University, however, has criticised the practice of making unconditional offers and said the institution will not go down that road.

The University and College Union sees its push for post-qualifications admissions (PQA) as the solution, saying it would be “fairer for students, bring the UK into line with the rest of the world and eliminate the use of unconditional offers and the chaotic clearing process.”

Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) believes PQA has its own problems and that imposing a ban on unconditional offers would require a change of law and is not necessarily desirable.

One important driver of the rise in unconditional offers, the falling birth rate which has increased competition for recruits, will be less of a factor from the early 2020s, he points out. And applicants who decide too rashly or change their minds always have the option of asking the institution that has given them an unconditional offer to release them so that they can enter clearing.

“If unconditional offers counter some of the negatives arising from our hyper-selective university entrance system by delivering more diverse student bodies, they can’t be all bad,” he said.

The OfS said it is now planning to launch a consultation on "how the admissions system can best achieve the goal of providing every student with a fulfilling experience of higher education".

Do unconditional offers amount to "pressure selling"?
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