Update on unconditional offer-making for 2019

This year, almost two in five (38 per cent) of 18 year old applicants from England, Northern Ireland, and Wales received an offer for a place at university that could be considered unconditional, compared to a third (34%) last year and just 1% six years ago, according to new analysis released today (30 Jul).

Today’s report from UCAS also reveals that the total number of unconditional offers made to 18-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland this year was 75,845, which represents 7.8% of all offers. This is up on last year’s 67,915 (7.1% of all offers) and considerably higher than the 2,985 (0.4% of all offers) made in 2013.

 UCAS’ report ‘Unconditional offers – an update for 2019’, published within 22 working days of the 30 June application deadline, shows 97,045 students who are typically yet to complete their qualifications received an offer with an unconditional component. This is a rise from 2018, when 87,540 of these applicants received an offer of this type – which represented a third (34 per cent).

In 2019, a quarter of 18 year old applicants (63,830) from England, Northern Ireland, and Wales received a ‘conditional unconditional’ offer, up from a fifth (52,145) at this point last year. ‘Conditional unconditional’ offers are initially made by the university as conditional, then updated to unconditional if the offer is accepted as the student’s first (firm) choice.

Applicants from the most advantaged backgrounds, using the POLAR4 measure, were slightly more likely to receive a conditional unconditional offer than those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

Universities’ offer-making policies are typically confirmed up to a year before the start of the admissions cycle, and they will usually be consistent throughout the cycle to ensure fairness. By 31 March 2019, universities and colleges had already made 98% of this year’s offers to 18 year olds from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Previous UCAS survey insight  has shown that around two thirds of students receiving a conditional unconditional offer felt positive about them, with some reporting a reduction in stress levels before sitting their exams. UCAS’ 2018 End of Cycle Report  showed that those holding a confirmed place on an undergraduate course were more likely to miss their predicted grades than those holding a conditional offer.

Clare Marchant, UCAS' Chief Executive, said:

‘Students’ best interests must be the number one consideration for universities and colleges when making offers. We have expanded our information and advice to students  on all types of offers, as well as producing a series of good practice resources  to support admissions teams when making unconditional offers.

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‘The use of unconditional offers remains a complex issue and continues to evolve. We look forward to working with the Office for Students and Universities UK on their respective upcoming admissions practice reviews, to deliver meaningful recommendations.

‘Clearing, the post-qualifications application route, is now open. With student choice at the heart of the UK’s application system, we’ve streamlined the process  for those who have changed their minds and now want to make a new choice. Anyone can apply to the 30,000 courses with places on offer for this September, including those students who might have accepted an unconditional offer.’

A Department for Education spokesperson said:

“What sets the UK’s world-leading universities apart is our relentless focus on quality and this must be protected.

“There is a place for unconditional offers, however this data highlights the continued rise in their use and we know some students who accept unconditional offers can be more likely to miss their predicted A Level grades. We also have particular concerns about the use of conditional unconditional offers, which can potentially pressure students into accepting a place which may not the best option for them.

“Many institutions are already taking steps to address the rise in unconditional offers and we hope these efforts continue, with the figures showing a different picture next year. We look forward to seeing the results of the OfS’ and UUK’s reviews of admissions practices to ensure they work in the best interests of students.”

The University and College Union (UCU) said the time had come to adopt a post-qualification admissions (PQA) system - preferred in the rest of the world - where students apply to university after they receive their exam results.

UCU acting general secretary Paul Cottrell said:

‘Unconditional offers have made a mockery of exams and put teachers under unfair pressure when it comes to predicted grades. Unconditional offers put students under enormous pressure to make a snap decision about their future and can encourage some to take their foot off the gas, instead of striving for excellence.

‘The continuing rise of unconditional offers demonstrates the stark failings of our current admissions system. It is time for us to join the rest of the world and adopt a post-qualifications admission system so we can make university offers based on actual achievements instead of guesswork.’

Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said:

“Our recently announced ‘Fair admissions review’ is bringing together school, college, university and UCAS leaders to ensure offer making practices are fair and transparent, underpinned by clear criteria and operating in the best interests of students.

“There are clear benefits in universities being able to use a variety of offer making practices to reflect an individual student’s circumstances, potential and the context of their application, and to support different groups such as students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“An important principle of the UK system is that universities decide independently which students they accept; but with this comes a responsibility to explain why and how places are awarded, and to show the public and students why different types of offers are made.”

Research shows that only one in six (16%) university applicants achieve the exam grade points that they were predicted. While UCAS has found that holding an unconditional offer increases the chances of missing a predicted grade by two or more grades by 6.4 percentage points.

Overall, 80% of applications from 18 year olds in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales received an offer (either conditional, unconditional, or conditional unconditional) this year, tying the record of 2018.

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