Unconditional offers made by colleges have risen by 60 per cent in six years, according to new data.
Tes analysis of Ucas data on offers with an unconditional element to them reveals that the criticised practice is not only widespread among universities, but at colleges too.
In the 2019-20 admissions cycle, 40 colleges made offers with some sort of unconditional component.
The "explosion" in unconditional offers from colleges is "bad for students and symptomatic of a broken admissions system”, said University and College Union head of further education Andrew Harden.
He said: “Shifting to a system where students apply for their higher education courses after they receive their grades would make these type of unconditional offers redundant, and empower students to make informed decisions about where to study based on their achievement rather than vague estimates of their potential.”
Labour's shadow FE and HE minister, Emma Hardy, also called for reform of the admissions system, and said a post-qualification admissions system needed to be seriously looked at.
She said: "People keep telling me that it can’t work and yet it works in other countries. It would be a much fairer system if you had to wait until you’ve got your qualifications to apply.
"It all comes down to funding. However you fund something drives behaviours, good or bad. People will react in the way that maximises the money for the institution, because that’s the market and that’s where we operate. You can understand it, colleges need to know how much money they are going to get in September each year, but it’s not necessarily the right thing for everyone."
In the current system, there are three types of unconditional offers: direct unconditional, conditional unconditional and other unconditional.
The first is the most straightforward: an offer to study HE at an institution with no strings attached, no matter what grades the applicant may receive in the summer.
A conditional unconditional offer is conditional at the point of offer and is then made unconditional if the applicant selects the institution as their firm choice.
Other unconditional offers are conditional at the point of offer and then become unconditional before 30 June, which is the final data on which applications can be submitted in Ucas.
The motivation behind unconditional offers
Data obtained by Tes reveals the scale of offers with an unconditional component made by colleges from 2013 to 2019. The biggest rise in these offers occurred between 2013 and 2015, when their number rose by 203 per cent.
2016 was the year that most were given out: 11 per cent of all HE offers made by colleges had an unconditional component (930 out of 8,110 offers).
Institutions making offers with an unconditional element have received much criticism in the past few years. Questions have been raised about the ethical motivation behind them, with some arguing that students’ retention and attention wavers once an unconditional offer has been made.
Last year education secretary Gavin Williamson backed a review by HE regulator Office for Students (OfS) into university admissions, saying he was “delighted that some universities have already scrapped making so-called unconditional offers". "I hope, and I expect, that the rest are going to follow suit."
In the interests of learners?
Nick Hillman, director of HE think tank HEPI, told Tes that the rise in unconditional offers being made by colleges was "very worrying" as they stripped students of their freedom of choice.
“[These offers are] being received by people who are only 17 years old. They’re not even adults and we’re expecting them to make a life-transforming decision. The institution is trying to skew the decision-making process in their own interest, and it’s important that the interests of learners are put first,” he said.
He said that the rise in offers was a symptom of the highly competitive market, and "colleges and other higher education institutions are so keen to enrol as many students as possible because the students bring money and resources with them."
Mr Hillman said that there may be rare circumstances in which the offers are valid. For example, mature learners who aren’t waiting on results or vulnerable students for whom the security of a locked down offer is beneficial.
But he argued that if that was the case, why not offer a straightforward unconditional offer, instead of a conditional unconditional offer, which only provides that security once the applicant has picked it has a firm choice.
He said: “If an institution that gives out a very high proportion of unconditional conditional offers I think valid questions should be asked of them. Is what they’re doing in the interest of learners?”
Explosion in unconditional offers
Loughborough College remains the only college to offer conditional unconditional offers – all others offer direct unconditional or other unconditional places. When they began offering them in 2015, the offers made up 80 per cent of their overall offers. In 2019, the college made 130 conditional unconditional offers, which made up 53 per cent of their overall offers.
In 2015, Lougborough’s conditional unconditional offers alone made up 22 per cent of all offers with an unconditional component overall. In 2019, this rose to 30 per cent.
Loughborough college chief executive John Doherty said: "Our college shared the concerns expressed by Damian Hinds and carried out an HE admissions review. Following this review, our governing body confirmed that Loughborough College will no longer be making ‘conditional unconditional’ offers.
"The offers made during the latest, 2019, recruitment cycle represented less than 1.5 per cent of our 9,500 combined FE, HE and other learners. This type of offer was made only to those predicted to meet our published entry requirements for sport, which represents half of our HE population. Due to the timing of the review, our revised policy will be effective for the intake year 2021."
Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes said that the rise in conditional unconditional offers has worried the organisation for some time.
He said: "We believe that there is increasing evidence that they can have a negative impact on student motivation and achievement. It is also clear that they can put pressure on students to make quick decisions that won’t always lead to the best choice for them.
"While unconditional offers definitely have a role to play in the admissions process, every college and university should seriously think about the impact of offering them en masse. It’s pleasing to see that Ucas and OfS have both begun to consider the consequences of this practice and we look forward to solid solutions to ensure that if kept in place, these types of offers are used responsibly.”
2019's unconditional offers by provider
|Provider||Direct unconditional offers||Conditional unconditional offers||Other unconditional offers||Offers with an unconditional component||All offers|
|Bedford College Group||40||0||0||40||55|
|University Centre Colchester at Colchester Institute||15||0||0||15||95|
|BMet (Birmingham Metropolitan College)||5||0||0||10||20|
|Hugh Baird College||10||0||0||10||15|
|DN Colleges Group||10||0||0||10||105|
|Askham Bryan College||5||0||0||5||225|
|Barnsley College Higher Education||5||0||0||5||85|
|Bishop Burton College||5||0||0||5||260|
|Coleg Sir Gar||5||0||0||5||45|
|Central Bedfordshire College||5||0||0||5||5|
|City of Sunderland College||5||0||0||5||80|
|Gower College Swansea||5||0||0||5||35|
|Hereford College of Arts||5||0||0||5||55|
|Hertford Regional College||5||0||0||5||5|
|Leeds City College||5||0||0||5||110|
|UCEN Manchester (The Manchester College)||0||0||0||5||270|
|Newcastle College University Centre||5||0||0||5||200|
|New College of the Humanities||5||0||0||5||55|
|North Warwickshire and South Leicestershire College||5||0||0||5||20|
|South and City College Birmingham||5||0||0||5||35|
|Havant and South Downs College||5||0||0||5||15|
|South Gloucestershire and Stroud College||5||0||0||5||75|
|Warwickshire College Group||5||0||0||5||185|
|West Thames College||5||0||0||5||5|