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Careersoft briefing: the rise in unconditional offers from universities

TrianglesRecently there has been a big upward trend in the number of unconditional offers made to university applicants. Now that we are past the UCAS application deadline for most degree courses, you may be noticing this trend in the offers that your students are getting. Here are some observations from Careersoft's Higher Ideas team as to what it means for the advice we should be giving to students.

Data from UCAS shows that in 2013, there were about 3,000 unconditional offers made nationally. The latest UCAS data shows that this has risen sharply to over 50,000 in the 2017 entry cycle. This is about 5% of all offers made. It is a dramatic trend, and likely to continue. It can be very flattering for students to receive an unconditional offer, but the situation is not straightforward and those in receipt of these offers need to think carefully about what to do.

So first of all, some background information on why this increase is happening and who it affects:

  • A few top universities are in great demand and entry to them remains extremely competitive. This is also the case for a small number of subjects including medicine, veterinary science, and dentistry. But there are many courses at many universities which have more places than applicants. Factors contributing to this include the dip in the birth rate about 17 years ago, and the drop in applications from EU students.
  • Universities have a higher education product to sell, and want to encourage students to buy from them. Making unconditional offers is one of the ways that a university can encourage students to spend their tuition fee loan at this university rather than another one.
  • Like any organisation, universities need to plan the allocation of their resources, and they want some certainty about the numbers of students to expect. Where a university makes an unconditional offer and a student makes it their firm choice, the university has a high degree of certainty that the student will be coming to study with them in the autumn.
  • Currently it is a small group of universities that make these kinds of unconditional offers. They include some Russell Group universities (e.g. Birmingham and Queen Mary, London).
  • It is not just students with the highest predicted grades who are getting unconditional offers. It is still rare in this group. Those who stand the highest chance of getting an unconditional offer are those with predicted grades in the range BBC-ABB.
  • It is easy for young people to be flattered when they get an unconditional offer. There is some justification in this, as the university would not make an offer unless they think the student can cope with the course. But flattery is a known sales technique and so the student needs to be wary. Is the university saying "we are confident of your ability to perform over the next three years", or is the underlying message really about being confident that the student will bring in over £9k per year in tuition fees for the next three years?
  • Many unconditional offers come with terms attached. Often the university will say that the offer is unconditional only if the student accepts it as their firm choice. If the university was the student's preferred choice anyway, then the decision is easy, but the situation is often more complex than that.

What are the pros and cons of unconditional offers?

TrianglesFor the student, unconditional offers remove the uncertainty about where they will be going in the autumn. It also reduces the pressure to get particular grades. This could really help students who don't cope well with stress.

With no pressure for specific grades, many students will still work hard and do their best. But some students who get an unconditional offer may take it as an excuse to sit back and take it easy — after all, whatever A-level grades they get, they know they've got a place at university. This is bad for the general morale of the class and also potentially damaging for the student in ways they might not have considered:

  • The student's A-level grades stay on their CV into their working life. Future employers are likely to take A-level or equivalent exam results into account.
  • A-level results may be taken into consideration when applying for work placements within the degree course, or postgraduate courses later.
  • A student may decide in the early part of their degree course that they don't like it and want to change. Their results at A-level or equivalent will be used in deciding if they can get onto another course.
  • During sixth form study, some of the most challenging material comes in the later stages of the course. By not fully engaging, students won't be so well prepared for succeeding at university.

Advising students about accepting their UCAS offers, especially when these include unconditional offers:

  • trianglesMake sure the student understands what motivates universities to make unconditional offers. It is a buyer's market, with universities competing for students and their tuition fees. Potential students need to manoeuvre around it carefully to make sure they choose the university that's best for them.
  • Students do well to wait until all their offers are in before they commit to making their firm and insurance choices. For 2018, if all their offers were received by 31 March then they have until 2 May to decide. For those who received some of their offers after the end of March, they have until 7 June to decide. There's no point in putting off the decision when you are sure. But don't be bounced into accepting an offer because it was the first one to come in.
  • It is possible for students to change a decision but only if done within 14 days of their original decision, and only by phoning UCAS. Only one change in this way is allowed. Much better is to make the right decision first time. Considered decisions help to avoid "buyer's regret".
  • Students should make sure they have found out all they can about the courses for which they have received offers, and the places that are offering them. Even if they have already been to an open day there, it can be worth visiting again once they have an offer. Often when the student has put a course on their UCAS shortlist, the university will invite the student to an open day at the department which runs that course. Students can get a feel for the place and talk to current students and staff.
  • Where the student has their heart set on a particular university that has made them a conditional offer, they should think very carefully before giving it up for another offer just because that other offer is unconditional.
  • Finally, when the students have made their decisions and indicated their first and insurance choices, they should check that UCAS Track is showing what they expect. If not then the student should contact UCAS by phone as soon as possible to get it corrected.

Higher IdeasHigher Ideas has lots of factsheets on topics useful for students considering degree-level education, including a factsheet on university offers. This covers the different kinds of offers that your students might encounter and can help them to make wise choices. To find the factsheets, click on the Help icon in Higher Ideas. The factsheet about university offers is in the 'Factsheets' section of the help, under 'Applying for your degree course'. We recommend that students read and understand this factsheet before accepting or rejecting any of their university offers. This factsheet can be useful for teachers and advisers too.

As ever, we welcome all comments, compliments, questions, and criticisms.

Last updated 30 January, 2018