עופר איתן Reports: UK universities make record number of unconditional offers - Jonathan Cartu Charity Foundation
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עופר איתן Reports: UK universities make record number of unconditional offers

עופר איתן Reports: UK universities make record number of unconditional offers

UK universities made a record number of unconditional offers to 18-year-olds this year in what has been described by critics as a “frenetic scramble to put bums on seats”, despite pressure from government to cut out “unethical” practices.

According to the university admissions service Ucas, almost two in five applicants (37.7%) from England, Northern Ireland and Wales, received some kind of unconditional offer, up 3.3 percentage points on 2018 figures.

So-called “conditional unconditional offers”, by which a university guarantees a student a place regardless of A-level results, but only on condition that they put the institution as their first option, have increased the most, according to Ucas’ 2019 end of cycle report.

Conditional unconditional offers were condemned as “unethical” by former education secretary Damian Hinds, who earlier this year accused universities of adopting pressure-selling tactics that back students into a corner.

More than a quarter of 18-year-old applicants (25.1%) received a conditional unconditional offer for an undergraduate place in 2019, up from around a fifth (20.9%) last year, though analysis suggests their appeal may be waning. Of those holding such an offer this year, 20.6% chose to accept, down from 25.6% in 2014.

In April, Hinds wrote to universities urging them to eliminate the practice, which he claimed was damaging the global reputation of universities in England. A number of vice-chancellors subsequently sought legal advice, promising to oppose “state control” over university admissions.

Although students report feeling less stressed if they have a unconditional firm offer, latest Ucas analysis shows they are more likely to miss their predicted grades. In 2019, nearly three out of five applicants (57%) holding an unconditional offer dropped three or more grades, compared with 43% with conditional offers. Ucas research found that unconditional offers have a more negative impact on men’s attainment than women’s.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is infuriating that universities have apparently responded to calls to end the use of certain types of unconditional offers by making more of them.

“There are circumstances in which unconditional offers are appropriate, but not when the offer is made on condition that the student makes the university their firm choice. This practice has more to do with the frenetic scramble to put ‘bums on seats’ than the best interests of students.”

Following the lifting of the cap on student numbers, there has been fierce competition between institutions who are dependent for their survival on undergraduate tuition fees and are recruiting from a shrinking pool of 18-year-olds.

Other details revealed by the latest Ucas figures include:

  • The entry rate gap between the most and least advantaged students to the most selective universities narrowed by 8% in 2019.

  • There has been an increase of almost 20% in students with a declared mental health condition.

  • The number of Chinese students accepted on courses at UK higher education institutions has gone up by 22%.

Universities UK (UUK), which advocates for 136 higher education institutions, is currently conducting a review of admissions practices. UUK chief executive, Alistair Jarvis, said: “An important principle of the UK system is that universities decide independently which students they accept; but with this comes a responsibility to ensure that the admissions system continues to work in the best interests of students.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We expect universities to look seriously at these figures which show the impact unconditional offers have on students’ grades, and make sure their admissions practices are working for students.”

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the higher education regulator the Office for Students, said unconditional offers have a place in university admissions. “But we remain concerned by the continuing rise in so-called conditional unconditional offers, which risk pressuring students into making decisions that may not be in their best interests,” she said.

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