A record one in four university applicants were given a controversial “conditional unconditional” offer this year, official figures show.
Despite a significant hike in these offers, would-be students are now less likely to accept one, according to data published by the university admissions service Ucas.
There has been a growing backlash against the use of “conditional unconditional” offers – in which a student is given a place at a university, regardless of the A-level grades they achieve, on the condition they make the institution their firm first choice.
Concerns have been raised by ministers and school leaders about these offers, with calls for universities to end the practice and warnings they could lead to sixth-formers taking their foot off the pedal during their studies and not achieving the grades in their A-levels or other qualifications they may have been expected to achieve.
Proportion of university applicants that received a 'conditional unconditional' offer in 2019
The latest Ucas figures show about a quarter (25.1%) of 18-year-old university applicants from England, Wales and Northern Ireland – some 64,825 students – received a “conditional unconditional” offer in 2019, up 4.2 percentage points from 20.9% (53,355 students) in 2018.
Five years ago, in 2014, just 3.1% of applicants received such an offer.
A breakdown by subject shows communications and media has the highest proportion of “conditional unconditional” offers (15.5%), followed by humanities and liberal arts (13.6%).
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) argued “conditional unconditional offers” have “more to do with the frenetic scramble to put ‘bums on seats’ than the best interests of students”.
University leaders said there are “clear benefits” to institutions using a “variety of offer-making practices” but that these need to be used “appropriately and proportionately”.
Ucas’s figures do show that while more of these offers are being made, fewer students are opting to take one up.
Proportion of students opting to take up a 'conditional unconditional' place
Overall, among applicants holding five offers of places from universities, including one “conditional unconditional” offer, just over one in five (20.6%) chose to accept the “conditional unconditional” place.
This is down from 25.6% in 2014, Ucas said.
It added that students with higher predicted exam grades were less likely to accept this type of offer than those with lower predicted grades.
In addition, Ucas said applicants holding a firm unconditional offer are more likely to miss their predicted grades, with 57% of applicants failing to meet their predicted A-level results by three or more grades, compared to 43% of those holding a conditional firm offer.
The Ucas figures also show that, overall, 37.7% of applicants received some form of unconditional offer.
This includes not only “conditional unconditional” offers, but offers that are purely unconditional with no strings attached and other offers that are conditional to begin with but then become unconditional, for example arts students whose offers are converted after they have submitted portfolios.
Unconditional offers remain a complex issue and our new insight will further inform the dialogue, forming a crucial contribution to the current admissions practice reviews
Clare Marchant, Ucas chief executive, said, “Students are considering their offers more carefully than ever, with the type of offer they receive having less of an impact than before.
“Our advice to students is to always think about what’s most important for them when deciding which offers to accept.
“Unconditional offers remain a complex issue and our new insight will further inform the dialogue, forming a crucial contribution to the current admissions practice reviews.
“Their impact on attainment needs to be highlighted, though this must be seen alongside their role in widening participation activities and benefits to students’ mental health.”
This practice has more to do with the frenetic scramble to put ‘bums on seats’ than the best interests of students
Geoff Barton, ASCL chief executive, said: “It is infuriating that universities have apparently responded to calls to end the use of certain types of unconditional offers by making more of them.
“There are circumstances in which unconditional offers are appropriate, but not when the offer is made on condition that the student makes the university their firm choice.
“This practice has more to do with the frenetic scramble to put ‘bums on seats’ than the best interests of students.
“It results in many young people taking their foot off the pedal in their A-levels, doing less well than they should, and potentially damaging their future employment prospects.”
An important principle of the UK system is that universities decide independently which students they accept
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK, said: “Universities UK continues its work through the ‘fair admissions review’ to consider the extent to which various university admissions practices are fair, transparent and operating in the best interests of students.
“The review group, which has school, college, student, university, and UCAS representatives, is analysing the evidence and views of applicants towards predicted grades, unconditional offers and post-qualification admissions – including assessing the practical implications and possible effects any changes would have on the current system.
“While there are clear benefits in universities being able to use a variety of offer making practices to reflect an individual student’s circumstances, potential and the context of their application, it is important they are used appropriately and proportionately.”
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has previously condemned the use of “conditional unconditional offers”, saying there is no place for them, and they can limit disadvantaged teenagers from going to the “very best academic institutions” possible.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS), said: “Unconditional offers have a place in university admissions. But we remain concerned by the continuing rise in so-called ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, which risk pressuring students into making decisions that may not be in their best interests.
“Happily, today’s data suggests that students are becoming increasingly cautious about being influenced by such admissions practices.”