Rise in unconditional offers sparks call for new system of post-qualification university applications

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Calls have been made to move to a post-qualification system of applications for higher education.

It comes after education secretary Damian Hinds has written to universities urging them to change their admissions practices in light of revelations about the rise in “conditional unconditional” offers.

UCAS figures last year reported that students are now 30 times more like to receive an unconditional offer than five years ago, with 10 universities last year giving more than half of their offers as unconditional.

It means that a third of 18-year-olds in England, Northern Ireland and Wales received an unconditional offer in 2018 (some 87,540 applicants), compared to 1.1 per cent in 2013 – some 87,540

So-called “conditional unconditional” offers occur when universities guarantee a place but only if the student puts them down as first choice.

Mr Hinds said last week that the practice was “unacceptable” and “could breach laws designed to protect consumers from entering into a transaction they otherwise wouldn’t have”.

He has written to 23 universities calling on them to stop “backing students into a corner” and trapping them from exploring other options. He is also asking the Office for Students (OfS) to conduct a review into current admission practices, looking at “improving current practices and including greater access and participation for students from underrepresented groups and disadvantaged backgrounds”. The full scope of the review is to be developed “in due course”.

Mr Hinds said: “It is simply unacceptable for universities to adopt pressure-selling tactics, which are harming students’ grades in order to fill places. It is not what I expect to see from our world-class higher education institutions.

“Conditional unconditional offers are damaging the reputation of the institutions involved and our world-leading sector as a whole. That is why I will be writing to 23 universities, urging them to stamp out this unethical practice.

“But I am concerned about the wider picture of how some universities are getting students through their doors, so I am asking the OfS to look at how well current admissions practices serve students and how they can be improved, so we can protect the integrity of our higher education system.”

The impact of unconditional offers on A level performance is notable. A report in January from the OfS found that applicants who accept an unconditional offer are seven per cent more likely to miss their predicted A level results by two or more grades.

Unconditional offers also discriminate against disadvantaged pupils, according to the Sutton Trust charity, as research shows that predicted grades are more likely to be “under-predicted” for poorer students.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, explained: “Damian Hinds is absolutely right to look seriously at universities’ indiscriminate use of unconditional offers. They have increased exponentially over the past five years. As a result, universities put more weight on students’ predicted grades, which are more likely to have been under-predicted for disadvantaged students. This review is a much-needed chance to look again at our broken admissions system.”

Sir Peter is calling for a radical change in the system that would see students applying for their places after receiving their A level results.

This has been mooted in the past, with potential models including an earlier A level results day or students beginning university courses in January and the autumn term being used for citizenship or volunteering work.

Sir Peter continued: “We want to move to a post-qualification applications system where students apply only after they have received their A level results. This does away with predicted grades and unconditional offers.

“Having actual grades on application empowers the student. They can pick the right course at the right university with a high degree of certainty they are making the right choice.”

UCAS has worked with a variety of universities and colleges to produce a series of good practice resources to support admissions teams when they choose to make unconditional offers.

Responding to Mr Hinds’ comments, Clare Marchant, chief executive of UCAS, said: “Students’ best interests must be the paramount consideration for universities and colleges when making offers. It’s essential that students are supported to make informed choices and the right decisions about their future.

“We welcome the review of admissions practices and look forward to continuing our work with the OfS as the review’s scope and remit is shaped. There needs to be a clear objective that any recommendations put the interests of students first, working with teachers, universities and colleges.”

Meanwhile, a new UCAS-style system aimed at helping young people to access Apprenticeships, technical training and other vocational pathways is to be launched in Greater Manchester this autumn

Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has opened the tender for bids to deliver the web portal, which is thought to be one of the first of its kind and will match opportunities with applicants’ existing qualifications, experience and career aspirations.

It will offer opportunities at age 16 and age 18, while local businesses will be able to share their openings and training opportunities, including work-shadowing, mentoring, open days and careers talks.

In addition, the system will enable users to develop a “Curriculum for Life”, a digital portfolio of skills, experience and examples of past work in addition to academic qualifications.


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