The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has issued a report on the number of unconditional offers to applicants seeking entry to higher education in 2019. The report follows publication of a similar report for the 2018 recruitment cycle.
The data contained in the current report is based on applications made through UCAS’s main scheme, which closed on 30 June 2019. Applicants applying under the main scheme typically make multiple applications (up to five).
The data contained in the report is based on applicants aged 18 from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Applicants from Scotland are excluded from the analysis, as they are likely to have Scottish Higher Education qualifications, which form part of the entry requirements.
The UCAS report includes information on the overall offer rate. The rate shows the proportion of applications that receive an offer through UCAS’s main scheme. The offer rate has increased every year from 2013 to 2018, and in 2019 remained at a “record 80%”. UCAS suggest that the rise in the rate reflects the fall in the number of 18 year olds in the UK, and increased competition between providers.
Types of offers
Applicants receive one of two types of offer:
Conditional – offers with conditions that the applicant needs to satisfy to gain entry. Typically, for 18 year old applications these relate to the attainment of Level 3 qualifications (e.g. ‘A’ levels or BTEC awards), with specified grades.
Unconditional – offers to applicants deemed to have sufficient qualifications or experience to meet the provider’s entry conditions.
Conditional unconditional offers
Elements of both types of offer are found in “conditional unconditional” offers. These are typically conditional offers, which become unconditional, should the applicant make the provider their “firm’ choice. i.e. the provider’s course is selected for entry.
“Conditional unconditional” offers accepted by applicants are subsequently recorded as “unconditional” by UCAS. “Conditional unconditional” offers not accepted by the applicant remain “conditional”. The full set of unconditional offers plus conditional unconditional offers not selected as firm are defined as “offers with an unconditional component”.
UCAS notes that overlaps make the reporting of offer patterns particularly challenging.
Data and trends
UCAS separately report “unconditional” offers from “conditional unconditional” offers.
As at 30 June 2019, 7.8% (75,845) of offers made to 18 year old applications from England, Wales and Northern Ireland were unconditional. This figure compares with 7.1% (67,915) in 2018.
For the same group and closing date, conditional unconditional offers or offers with an unconditional component, comprised 8.3% (80,785) of all offers. This compares with 6.6% in the previous cycle (63,560).
UCAS note that offers with an unconditional component still account for a minority of all offers made to the group. i.e. around one in seven (c.14%).
The proportion of applicants receiving at least one offer with an unconditional component rose to 38% (97,045) of applicants in 2019, compared to 34% (87,540) in 2018. In 2019, one in four applicants (25%) received an offer identified as conditional unconditional. The number represented a 5 percentage points increase on 2018.
Applicants from the most disadvantaged groups
UCAS’s analysis finds that applicants from POLAR4 quintile 1 (areas with the lowest rates of participation in higher education) were 50% more likely to receive an unconditional offer than applicants from the most advantage areas. i.e. 30% for POLAR4 quintile 1, compared to 20% for POLAR4 quintile 5. UCAS suggest the difference is linked to the pattern of predicted grades.
The number of conditional unconditional offers continues to rise. This is perhaps hardly surprising given the current imbalance between the demand for undergraduate programmes and number of places on offer by providers.
View of the government and the regulator
Providers’ actions with regard to making unconditional conditional offers have in the past drawn adverse comments from the then Secretary of State for Education and the Office for Students (OfS). A primary concern being “pressure selling”. Indeed the comments by the then Secretary of State raised also concerns, despite safeguards put in place by the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, about institutional autonomy.
Why recruitment is critical
Recruitment to undergraduate courses is central to most providers’ sustainability. Providers depend on being able to recruit to their planned student numbers to sustain their asset base. Failure to recruit, particularly if the pattern continues for several years, brings significant financial pressures.
The continuing fall in the aged 18 population cohort and intense competition between institutions, means a many providers are currently challenged in achieving the levels of recruitment they desire. The lack of an inflation uplift to the fee rate makes the situation even more difficult. Given this backdrop, governing bodies need to play close attention to recruitment, while seeking assurance as to the provider’s use of unconditional offers.