The practice, widespread across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, of making unconditional offers to applicants for undergraduate degrees is attracting the displeasure of ministers, VCs and, potentially, the new Office for Students (OfS). Sam Gyimah MP, Minister of State for Universities until he became a Brexit casualty on 30 November, described them on 26 July as ‘completely irresponsible’ and called on the OfS to take action. The VCs at Brunel, Buckingham, Chichester, Hertfordshire, King’s College London and the West of England led the signatories to a letter in the Times on 20 November, regretting that the practice was ‘detrimental to the longer-term interests of students, skews university choices and reduces the motivation and quality of sixth-form life in schools.’ Signatories particularly disliked so-called ‘unconditional if firm’ offers, also called ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, where universities put students under pressure by dangling an unconditional offer in front of them… but only if they pick that university as their firm choice, not their insurance choice.
Lancaster is unlikely to sign up to such sentiments – because business is booming in ‘unconditional if firm’ offers here! For some of our departments, the overwhelming majority of offers are now ‘unconditional if firm’, and as our admissions team will doubtless point out, they seem to work, especially when it comes to persuading applicants to choose us in preference to a close rival.
This competitive advantage only works if we’re doing it and our competitors are not, of course, and UCAS’s 2018 end-of-cycle report, published on 29 November, suggests that we’re fast approaching a no-score draw:
It seems that 14% of offers made for 2018 entry were unconditional, this being made up of 7.1% genuinely unconditional offers and 6.9% ‘unconditional if firm’ offers. Overall, 34.4% of applicants received at least one unconditional offer last year. In a conclusion due to be filed alongside that technical report on ‘things bears do in the woods’, UCAS has found that ‘applicants who hold an unconditional offer as their firm choice are more likely to miss their predicted A level grades by 2 or more points, compared to those who are holding a conditional offer as their firm choice.’
It pains subtext that Lancaster is one of the pioneers of this coercive approach to recruitment; but it seems likely that we won’t be allowed to do it for much longer anyway. Last year, Swansea University published the following statement on its website, aimed at its 2018 applicants, and we really couldn’t have put it better ourselves:
‘Universities typically indicate that they are making an unconditional offer because they have been favourably impressed with the candidate’s application. As flattering as it can be to receive such an offer, we would suggest that you consider why a University is behaving in this way. In this situation you are being invited to enroll on a degree programme without having to demonstrate prior achievement or a relevant base of subject knowledge. This says quite a lot about the University and their lack of confidence in being able to attract strong students.’
Miaow! This statement is no longer on Swansea’s website – we wonder why?! – but is still available via the magic of the Google cache.