Three-quarters of unis appear to have ditched 'conditional unconditional' offers

Up to three quarters of universities and colleges appear to have ended the controversial practice of “conditional unconditional” offers, the University and College Admissions Service has said.

Just over a quarter of school leavers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland received a “conditional unconditional” offer in 2019, up from just 20.9 per cent last year.

But UCAS chief executive Clare Marchant said today that “early indications point very strongly to a behaviour change in 2020”. However, she warned it is likely that institutions will deploy “other offer-making strategies, including direct unconditionals, in this competitive market”.

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 recent 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.

UCAS data shows that 67 per cent of applicants with unconditional offers missed their predicted grades, in comparison with 56 per cent of fellow students with offers that depended on their A-level grades.

Last year, it was revealed that eight universities had seemingly ignored please from Damian Hinds, the former education secretary, for them to end the use of unconditional offers.

But UCAS believes the tide may be turning.

Marchant forecast that “as many as 75 per cent of universities and colleges which made conditional unconditional offers in the 2019 cycle will no longer make these in 2020”.

“We are basing our forecast on conditional unconditional offers on three factors,” she said.

Some universities and colleges have publicly said they no longer plan to make such offers, and this is repeated in statements included in our university and college-level data released today.

“Secondly, we monitor offer-making through the year and our early modelling shows the tide is turning. Finally, our analysis of applicant decisions in the 2019 cycle shows they were only marginally more likely to choose a conditional unconditional offer as their firm choice.”

She said the forecast was made “because there is a lot of public debate on these types of offers, based on our data and insights”.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said that “under no circumstances” were conditional unconditional offers justified, and said he would write to all universities that continue to use them, to ask them to end the practice.

“We know students who accept unconditional offers are more likely to miss their predicted A-levels. I welcome those institutions leading the way in committing to end these offers, but there is clearly more to do.”