Where next on unconditional offers? Let’s stop using them as an incentive
By Dan Beynon
2018 saw one of the most competitive clearing and confirmation periods ever. Universities across the board adopted the use of unconditional offers in greater numbers than ever. And since the government’s removal of the student number cap in 2012 increased competition in the student recruitment marketplace has sharpened the focus on tariff requirements and offer making strategies like never before. There’s a proliferation of negative stories swirling around the sector and the marketisation of HE is being blamed for many things including the potential financial collapse of a number of UK Universities.
UCAS have received several FOI requests relating to the number of unconditional offers made during this 2018 cycle and as a result will be publishing detailed provider level data. Universities will get this data in December and it will then be made public in January 2019. Get the tin hats ready. The OFS are also watching the situation closely. This data will shine a very bright and uncomfortable light on the scale of this situation. The number of unconditional offers made to 18 year olds in 2011 was nearly 3000. In 2017 it was more than 50,000 and in 2018 it is beyond 80,000. Where does this end?
When one considers more closely the spectacular increase in the use of unconditional offers to this age group it is important to examine why this is happening and for whose benefit? Historically the role of these offers has been to match the circumstances of individual applicants whether relating to challenges concerning their personal circumstances, challenging learning environments and situations around anxiety and mental health. As well as this the nature of certain courses coupled with rigorous application and interview processes might also have made such offers the right way forward. But is this really what’s happening in sector now? The published UCAS data tells us that in 2018 these offers increased across every subject group. So are Universities now using unconditional offers as a marketing weapon that’s not based around individual circumstances but based on the financial imperative of securing the commitment of a potential student and in turn the funding that goes with that commitment?
It’s important to recognise the flip side of unconditional offer making. That is the negative impact on institutions themselves around retention, on students relating to attainment and on schools relating to behaviour and commitment to learning. Today’s UCAS end of cycle report for 2018 clearly acknowledges the negative effect these unconditional offers have on attainment levels. As a result some universities that operate in very challenging participation areas are facing pleas from their key feeder schools not to offer unconditionally. This point can prove most challenging for newer universities and those in the lower half of the rankings as they are likely to recruit more specifically from certain polar groups and their feeder schools will be the ones that are most challenged by their students’ reactions to receiving unconditional offers.
So what, if anything, should the sector be doing about this situation? In October at The Know (our regular debating forum for HE leadership), 35 representatives of UK Universities along with people from the Department of Education, Wonkhe, SMRS and The Student Room debated this issue at length. There was a clear acknowledgement amongst those in the room that unconditional offers were now being used as a marketing strategy and that if action was not taken by the sector itself then the spectre of legislation would potentially follow.
In the room were Russell Group universities, post 92 institutions, private providers and pathway organisations. It was fascinating to hear the passionate opinions and to listen to how the marketisation of HE and the surge in the use of these offers by competitors had forced the hand of institutions who had previously stood firm against this tactic. Recently St Mary’s University have taken the decision to stop making unconditional offers but Bath Spa have decided to make unconditional offers universally available through their 3.2.1 go scheme if certain criteria are met.
It’s time for universities to stop using unconditional offers as part of a marketing strategy. After all these offers were never meant to be an incentive to be compared with accommodation discounts and free iPads. I don’t think it is time for a blanket ban – although plenty of people at The Know were advocating that. But it is time to agree specific guidelines around when their use is both appropriate and valuable and all the processes that are involved. In that way we can continue to drive attainment, support individuals to meet their challenges and make sure students arrive at university ready for what is to come. That was after all how these offers were used previously and this approach will be much less damaging for universities and students.