Lower A-level grades from unconditional offers lead to higher dropout rates, warns regulator

Updated analysis from the Office for Students shows that unconditional offers risk pushing students into decisions that are not in their best interests.

Woman making notes from a book

The Office for Students (OfS) has today reiterated that unconditional offers risk pushing students into decisions that are not in their best interests, as updated analysis shows that young people who accepted unconditional offers before sitting their A-level exams are less likely to continue into their second year of study.

The analysis finds that, even after controlling for a range of characteristics associated with dropout rates, A-level entrants who accepted an unconditional offer in 2017-18 had a continuation rate between 0.4 and 1.1 percentage points lower than would have been expected had they taken up a conditional offer instead. This translates to between 70 and 175 of the 15,725 A-level entrants placed through unconditional offers that year.

UCAS analysis published in December 2019 found that applicants holding an unconditional offer in the 2019 cycle were, on average, 11.5 percentage points more likely to miss their predicted A-level grades by three or more grades. Today’s analysis by the OfS suggests that this lower A-level attainment then results in higher dropout rates in higher education.

The OfS has also previously highlighted that ‘conditional unconditional’ offers – now banned until September 2021 because of concerns around unfair admissions practices during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic – distort student choice and could be seen as akin to ‘pressure selling’.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said today:

‘It is becoming increasingly clear that unconditional offers can have a negative impact on students. Unconditional offers can lead to students under-achieving compared to their predicted A-level grades, choosing a university and course that may be sub-optimal for them, and ultimately being at increased risk of dropping out entirely.

‘Dropout rates are overall low in England, so this is a small effect. But we remain concerned that unconditional offers – particularly those with conditions attached – can pressure students into making decisions that may not be in their best interests, and reduce their choices. It is particularly important that we allow students the space to make informed decisions at this time of increased uncertainty, which is why we have temporarily banned ‘conditional unconditional’ offers during the pandemic.

‘It is in everyone’s interests for students to achieve their full potential at school, enrol on a higher education course that best fits their needs, interests and aspirations, and succeed on that course.’

For further information contact Aislinn Keogh on 07342 025 423 or [email protected].

See the updated analysis


  1. The Office for Students is the independent regulator for higher education in England. Our aim is to ensure that every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.
  2. See our publication: ‘Update to data analysis of unconditional offers: Relationship with transition to higher education and continuation of studies into the second year’.
  3. See UCAS's analysis: ‘Unconditional offers – the applicant experience’.
  4. The analysis of continuation rates in the report applies to English 18-year-olds, studying full-time courses, identified as entering higher education in the same year and at the same OfS-registered provider where they were placed through UCAS. The results highlighted above focus on those with predicted A-level qualifications.
  5. Our estimates of the difference in continuation rates from being placed through an unconditional offer, relative to a conditional offer, control for predicted entry qualifications, provider, subject of study and a number of student characteristics. However, it is possible that there remains some unobserved factor, correlated with both an entrant’s route into higher education and their likelihood of continuation, which is driving the negative relationship between unconditional offers and continuation rates for A-level entrants.
  6. The range of values presented reflect 95 per cent confidence intervals around these estimates.
Published 23 July 2020

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