'Conditional unconditional' offers up, but fewer pupils accept

The use of so-called “strings attached” offers by universities shows no sign of abating, but pupils are now less likely to accept them.

Despite high-profile interventions from the government, just over a quarter of school leavers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland received a “conditional unconditional” offer this year, up from just 20.9 per cent last year.

This practice has more to do with the frenetic scramble to put ‘bums on seats’ than the best interests of students

But 20.6 per cent of applicants with a conditional unconditional offer as one of their five offers accepted it this year, down from 25.6 per cent in 2018, new figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show.

Under a conditional unconditional offer, a university initially requires a pupil to meet certain entry criteria to gain a place, but then drops those conditions once the pupil names the university as their first choice.

The increase in the use of such offers – and of unconditional offers more generally – has prompted calls from ministers for universities to stop the practice, amid warnings from headteachers that it acts as a disincentive for year 13s to work hard at their studies.

According to UCAS, universities made offers with some kind of unconditional element to 97,125 pupils this year, up from 87,660 in 2018, a rise of 11 per cent.

The number of these offers issued also rose from 117,125 to 137,805 this year, an increase of 18 per cent.

The new data comes after UCAS revised its methodology to factor in offers that changed from conditional – dependent on a pupil’s A-level grades – to unconditional before June 30.

The rise in the use of conditional unconditional offers is a particular blow for the government, but not the first evidence that efforts to stop the practice have been snubbed by universities.

Earlier this year, Schools Week reported that just eight universities had seemingly refused to stop issuing strings-attached offers despite a plea from Damian Hinds.

The former education secretary had written to 23 universities known to make so-called “conditional unconditional” offers in April to call for an end to the practice, but announced in May that just eight had agreed to stop.

In September, Hinds’s successor Gavin Williamson announced he was considering moving to a post-results admissions system, which would involve pupils applying to university with their actual A-level results at the end of year 13.

No further details have been announced.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of school leaders’ union ASCL, said it was “infuriating that universities have apparently responded to calls to end the use of certain types of unconditional offers by making more of them”.

“This practice has more to do with the frenetic scramble to put ‘bums on seats’ than the best interests of students.”