Insight brief

Unconditional offers: Serving the interests of students?

The steep rise in the numbers of unconditional offers made by universities and colleges to students applying to study with them has come under the spotlight in recent months amid concerns that it is having a negative impact on students. Are these concerns warranted? And if so, what should be done about them?

25 January 2019

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Data analysis of unconditional offer-making

Recent changes and how they affect students

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.

Key points

  • The OfS is concerned about the rapid rise in unconditional offers, particularly those that require students to commit to a particular course. We will take action where they are not in students’ interests.
  • While some are seeking to justify unconditional offers as a tool to support fair access for disadvantaged students, contextual offer-making is a more effective way of achieving this.
  • We will make clear where ‘pressure selling’ practices are at risk of breaching consumer protection law, and empower students to challenge this as well as taking regulatory action if appropriate.
  • We will bring together a range of education, employer and other organisations to explore whether the admissions system serves the interests of students. We will work with the Department for Education, students, UCAS and others on a consultation on principles for how the admissions system can best achieve this goal.

Explore the data in this brief

  Number of  offers with firm reply Number of unconditional firm offers Proportion of firm offers that are unconditional Proportion of all unconditional firm offers






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