Conditional unconditional offers - incentive or turn-off?

Elsa Tarring discusses the growing trend of making 'conditional unconditional' offers to prospective students.

Elsa Tarring
5th February 2020
Over a quarter of university applicants across England, Wales and Northern Ireland received a conditional unconditional offer in 2019, despite pressure from the government to abandon these offers altogether. 

The number of conditional unconditional offers, whereby a university only guarantees your place if you make it your firm offer, has increased from 20.9% in 2018 to 25.1% in 2019, according to data released by Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). While a total of 34 UK universities made these offers in the last academic year, three of them, Nottingham Trent University, Birmingham City University and the University of Lincoln, were responsible for 30% of them. 

Former education secretary Damian Hinds has declared these offers “unethical”, claiming that they are an example of “pressure-selling tactics” used by universities to encourage students to choose their institution. In agreeing to accept one of these offers, students are unable to apply to any other, perhaps better regarded, university. 

The government has also expressed concern that those who receive and accept conditional unconditional offers often fall short of their predicted grades. In its end of cycle report of 2018, UCAS recognised that students with conditional unconditional offers are “between 7 and 13 per cent more likely to miss their predicted attainment by two or more grades” than those with conditional offers. 

The subsequent concern from the government is, after having dropped A level grades, the students will be worse equipped for university study, with research showing that students with conditional unconditional offers are more likely than any other to drop out of university altogether.

These statistics and discouraging words from the government have caused several universities, including the University of Nottingham, to refrain from making these offers entirely. However, its Polytechnic university, Nottingham Trent, has published its findings on why it continues to make conditional unconditional offers to just under half of all its applicants for undergraduate study.

NTU found that the rate of students with a conditional offer that failed a module was identical to that of those who received conditional unconditional offers, suggesting their underperformance at A level bears no resemblance to their success in their university studies. Their findings also show that conditional unconditional offer holders are gaining higher results when they do pass a module, with the percentage of first-class or upper second-class honours being consistently higher among conditional unconditional offer holders.

Despite the rise in these types of offers, UCAS has predicted that the number of conditional unconditional offers will “significantly decline” in 2020. It is thought that future students will be less likely to accept them, with only one in five students choosing to accept their conditional unconditional offer in 2019. 

Grace Dean, editor of The Courier who received a conditional unconditional offer from Newcastle University affirms this statistic, given she selected it as her insurance choice. She explains, “my predicted grade was three whole grades above the normal entry requirement of ABB, and I felt confident that I would achieve these grades anyway”.

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