Please note: The data analysis report and data file were updated on 30 October 2019 following improved linking between UCAS application data and higher education administrative data (HESA and ILR). Figure 9 in the report and the table in Annex A have been updated.
Do unconditional offers help or hinder students? Many teachers and others in education argue that they limit students’ ambitions and achievements, and that students may not be thinking about them in an informed way. Others (including many of the applicants who receive them) see them as a positive development.
This insight brief looks at the evidence to date on the impact of unconditional offers on 18-year-old English applicants, and analyses new data on patterns of offer-making by English universities and colleges. This and other data are discussed in more detail in the data analysis report.
Universities and colleges are responsible for their own admissions policies and practices, including those relating to unconditional offers. As the higher education regulator, the Office for Students (OfS) is in turn responsible for making sure that practices such as unconditional offers are serving students’ interests. The government has asked us to monitor their impact on student access and outcomes, in particular for disadvantaged students, and we are also looking at the extent to which the admissions system as a whole supports student choice and effective competition in the interests of students.
The OfS’s regulatory framework sets out quality and standards requirements of the universities and colleges that register with us, and they must also comply with consumer protection law. We need to be sure that unconditional offers are not detrimental to students, and that universities are not resorting to ‘pressure selling’ tactics in promoting them.
The growth of unconditional offers appears to be a consequence of increasing competition between universities. The OfS has a legal duty to have regard to the need to encourage competition where it is in the interests of students and employers. The question is whether the sorts of unconditional offer practices arising from this competition are in the interests of students.
Discussion of unconditional offers among educationalists and in the media over the past year has been vocal and vigorous. Their critics argue that they ‘sell students short’, and that their use is motivated by universities’ financial concerns rather than student need. Supporters argue that they benefit students by giving them certainty and confidence.
This discussion has often relied on assertion and anecdote rather than systematic examination of the evidence. We want to encourage a more evidence-led approach by identifying and articulating the issues for students and the implications for our regulation of universities.