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When is an unconditional offer not an unconditional offer – and other points missed

  • 26 July 2018
  • By Nick Hillman
Six under-reported points in today’s debate about the sharp rise in unconditional offers for applicants to higher education.
  1. The autonomy of universities over whom to admit is enshrined in primary legislation. This was confirmed in the most recent higher education act, which was passed just over a year ago. This means the room for action on restricting unconditional offers is strictly limited without a change to the law. Those who are calling for something to be done therefore need to explain how this is to happen.
  2. Moving to a system of post-qualification admissions, as exists in other countries, may have some advantages. It presumably would tackle the phenomenon whereby an exam candidate with an unconditional offer takes their foot off the pedal and coasts along, which teachers regularly describe as a problem. But, unless post-qualification admissions were to be accompanied by a minimum entry standard, it wouldn’t automatically tackle the issue of higher education institutions letting people in with lower grades – which seems to be the goal of many critics of the rise in unconditional offers. Universities would still be free to let individuals in with grades below their regular entry standard if they chose to do so.
  3. The rise in unconditional offers is, rightly, being linked to the removal of student number controls. However, one important driver is the falling birthrate 18 years ago (see chart), which means there are just fewer school leavers than for many years. So of course institutions need to fight harder to recruit entrants. The tide will turn again, but not until the early 2020s onwards.
  4. There are different sorts of unconditional offers. Some do have strings attached (so are not really ‘unconditional’ in a pure sense) – for example, the unconditional offer may be conditional on making the offering institution your firm choice. Others have bells and whistles attached, such as financial incentives.
  5. If, when the exam results roll in, an applicant feels they have accepted an unconditional place a little too rashly or has simply changed their mind, they can ask the institution that has given them an unconditional offer to release them so that they can enter clearing. In the ‘buyer’s market’ we currently have, they may be able to find a course or institution that they feel is a better fit for them at that stage. But to improve their chances, they need to act quickly as courses do fill up. If you are a worried applicant who wants to change their mind but is worried about doing so, remember two things: first, universities do not want unhappy students; and universities have seen it all before – whatever you decide, you won’t be the first to be do it. Follow your heart.
  6. Finally, universities work best when they are diverse. For this reason, we should be wary of opposing unconditional offers just because the end result could be more diverse student bodies: some of today’s commentary implies unconditional offers are a bad thing because certain people will arrive at certain universities that they would otherwise have been unable to enter. But, if those students go on to thrive, that is surely positive. Indeed, if unconditional offers counter some of the negatives arising from our hyper-selective university entrance system by delivering more diverse student bodies, they can’t be all bad.


  1. Jamie Mackay says:

    If I may, I think there is another point to be made which has also been missed. In London, the majority of HEIs do not have their own accommodation which means that prospective students have to source their own. I have recently been presented with some anecdotal evidence that students are obliged to sign a contract and pay a deposit – potentially non-refundable. I can therefore see that the unconditional offers are quite attractive to the accommodation providers who can then tie the students into a sort of package deal.

    So what happens when things don’t go according to plan and the student – for whatever reason – needs to withdraw? Worse still; what if they did down tools and didn’t manage to achieve their level 3 results, ending up without a university place, a bill for accommodation and no level 3+ qualifications to fall back on? This is obviously hypothetical but I imagine there could be some examples out there, making the whole situation very uncomfortable… I welcome feedback from colleagues.

  2. Johnny Rich says:

    In relation to point (5), applicants should also remember the option of deferring a year. If they’re not happy with the choice they made (whether there was an unconditional offer or not), they may not find anything they’re happier with in clearing when, almost by definition, most of the most popular options will not be available.

    There is a correlation between high clearing rates and high drop out, which may or may not be causally related (to some extent it doesn’t matter either way), which calls to mind the saw: choose in haste, repent at leisure. It is better to defer, or if necessary withdraw, from the application process for a year, do something productive with a gap year, and then reapply with their grades in the bag.

    Universities would do themselves – and students – a favour by encouraging this and offering to keep the place open to remove the sense of risk involved for the student. To steal another cliché: if you love someone, set them free. If they come back, they’re yours. If they don’t, they never were.

  3. Lizzy says:

    Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA) had been warning about the unintended consequences of unconditional offers and advising providers (before they were de-funded by UCAS). Here is their statement:

    They were particularly concerned about ‘strings attached’ ‘unconditional offers’.

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