New data from university admissions body Ucas reveals that a record number of pupils received unconditional offers from universities this year, yet the practice remains controversial.
There has also been a rise in “strings attached” unconditional offers – where students are asked to select a university as their first option in return for an unconditional place – a practice branded “unethical” by former education secretary Damian Hinds.
But why, precisely, are unconditional offers so divisive?
Conditional unconditionals: Hinds tells unis to stop 'unethical' strings-attached offers
1. Students with unconditional offers are more likely to miss their grades
Ucas’ End of Cycle Report 2018 found that students with an unconditional offer as their first choice were between 7 and 12 per cent more likely to miss their predicted A-level grades by two or more points. The report estimates that in 2018, having an unconditional firm offer resulted in an additional 1,015 English 18-year-olds – 1.6 per cent of those taking three or more A-levels - achieved two grades lower than predicted.
It must be said that the majority of A-level students miss their predicted grades, regardless of the type of offers they hold, and the unreliability of predicted grades has been used to justify unconditional offers in the past. Nonetheless, the data suggests unconditional offers lead to a loss of motivation for pupils, damaging their long-term prospects and leaving them unprepared for university study.
2. Unconditional offers damage social mobility
Ucas has found that the most disadvantaged students are 50 per cent more likely to receive an unconditional offer. As unconditional offers are correlated with missed predicted grades, this could mean disadvantaged students are at a greater risk of underachieving than their more privileged peers, leading to lower social mobility in the long term.
This year the Office for Students noted that while some universities have defended unconditional offers by suggesting they widen access, they “may be driven more by the circumstances of universities and colleges than the needs of the students".
3. Disadvantaged students who go on to achieve high grades lose out
Unconditional offers could lead to students making the wrong choice of university, even if they go on to achieve high grades. A 2017 Sutton Trust report found that up to 1,000 disadvantaged, high-achieving students per year had their grades under-predicted.
Bright students from poorer backgrounds may feel pressured to accept unconditional offers from low-tariff universities based on poor predicted grades, missing out on better offers once they get their results. This is partly why the Sutton Trust has called for a post-qualifications admissions system.
4. 'Strings attached' unconditional offers are seen as a form of pressure-selling
Some universities make “conditional-unconditional” offers to students, where they incentivise students to select them as a first option in return for an unconditional place. In April, former education secretary Damian Hinds wrote to 23 universities calling on them to stop the practice, which he described as a form of pressure-selling.
The Office for Students has also suggested “conditional unconditionals” may be at risk of breaching consumer law, and are not in students’ best interests. However, Ucas has found that 1 in 4 students have received a “conditional unconditional” offer this year.