Unconditional Offers, What’s going on?
There has been a remarkable rise in Universities offering unconditional offers over the last five years according to figures released by UCAS this summer. Unconditional offers have risen from 2,985 in 2013 to a staggering 69,530 by 2018. This accounts for 7.1% of students who started their first year of university this academic year. So what has fueled this rise? Is it that students show such remarkable promise that it would be foolish not to secure them? Or is it that with the lifting of the cap on student numbers, competition is getting tight, so attracting the right students has become a cut-throat pursuit?
When you consider a drop of 11,000 applications from 2017 to 2018, you can understand why Universities are trying their best to secure applicants and the income that they provide. A fall in the population of 18 year-olds can be partly responsible for this. But also a significant drop in mature students applying this academic year; the most dramatic reduction in applications coming from fewer people applying to study nursing, after the funding was changed from bursary to tuition fees. Surprisingly, EU student numbers and foreign students in general have actually risen, although this hasn’t offset the reduction in fee paying students from the UK.
When your main source of income is the yearly wave of 18 year-olds, it makes sense to secure the best and the brightest with unconditional offers, not only securing your budgets, but at the same time ensuring that the quality of student won’t hurt your rankings for next year either. Indeed, unconditional offers were by their very nature designed to tempt students with predicted top grades, or for courses where interview and presented work were the judge of whether they would be suitable candidates. This consisted mostly of courses centered around tangible skill sets in the Arts, Journalism or even Engineering. But why can’t that work for all students?
The recent rise in unconditional offers has led some education experts to warn that it could be having a detrimental effect, especially when it comes to A-Level grades. There is a fear that students with unconditional offers won't maximize their potential during the exam period, already safe in the knowledge that they have secured their university place. When combined with a move away from modular exams and course work, A-Level results have taken a knock, which in turn doesn’t bode well for school rankings. In 2018, 67% of those who held an unconditional offer as their first choice missed their predicted grades by two or more grades (compared to 57% of conditional first choice holders), lending some credibility to the argument.
Possibly the most alarming trend of the unconditional offer, is by its very nature conditional. Certain universities will offer the student an unconditional place, but only if they select said institution as their first choice on their UCAS application, thereby tying them in and guaranteeing their commitment. In 2018 alone, 66,316 'conditional unconditional' offers were made moving from conditional to unconditional only if the stipulation of first choice was met.
So what to make of the rise in numbers? There is an element of Universities increasingly trying to secure their quotas long before their potential students have sat their exams. As we move towards Brexit and its inevitable financial implications, as well as its off-putting message to foreign students, the competition will grow fiercer. The gaps in revenue must be filled, but also, to be able to compete with the rest of the world, the average British student still needs go the extra distance with their studies. There is also the knock-on effect this could have on School league tables, placing more pressure on an underfunded education system. It would seem the unconditional offer is by its very nature laden with conditions, but not just those that have an effect on the student but on education as a whole.