Students want unconditional offers to be regulated, survey reveals

crowd of university graduates at ceremony
by Hayley Pearce | 23 Jan 2019

Unconditional offers 'should not be handed out on a plate'

Nearly half of students think unconditional offers should be regulated, according to research.

Earlier this month, TSR Insight surveyed current university applicants about unconditional offers.

Of the 557 students who responded, almost half (46%) of respondents said the government should regulate the number of unconditional offers made by universities.

A further 22% said they are unsure, while 33% said they do not think this should be regulated by the government.

Most are 'happy' to receive an unconditional offer

Despite this, 70% said they would be happy to receive an unconditional offer, and 58% said they would feel positive about a university that made them an unconditional offer.

Many see receiving an unconditional offer as an achievement, particularly when it is from a high-ranking university or for a competitive course. 

One student said: “[Unconditional offers] are a great way of putting faith in students that you want them to come to their uni. It relieves them of the pressure of exams and allows them to do their best without the concern of the possibility of not making the grade.”

Unconditional offers 'should be awarded on merit'

For the most part, respondents felt universities should be selective in who they made unconditional offers to, with just 17% of respondents saying universities should make unconditional offers to any applicant they choose.

When asked how universities should select the students to whom they make unconditional offers, 62% said these offers should be made to applicants who had already received their grades.

After this, respondents thought universities should be making unconditional offers to applicants with an impressive personal statement (40%), those who had completed an interview (31%), those with very high predicted grades (31%) or those from disadvantaged backgrounds (30%).

Only 10% did not think universities should make unconditional offers at all.

Universities' reputations are at stake

Making too many unconditional offers could also be damaging to university reputations. Some applicants felt universities might make unconditional offers simply to fill spaces, rather than because of students’ ability or personal circumstances.

And more than half of those surveyed (59%) said their opinion of a university’s reputation would be quite or extremely negative if they found out that university made a lot of unconditional offers.

“Personally, I believe they are handed out too freely," said one student. "Four of my five offers state that they will be unconditional if I put them as my firm, which makes me believe that the universities do not actually care if I get the grade. Instead, they just care about how many places that they fill, and want to guarantee as many as possible with the appeal of an unconditional offer.”

Only 6% of those surveyed say they would have a positive opinion of a university that made a lot of unconditional offers.

Some respondents commented that the practice makes universities look desperate. Others felt that, because unconditional offers are often made to applicants with lower predicted grades, high achievers were criticised by peers for accepting them.

'Conditional unconditional offers’

So-called 'conditional unconditional offers’ are offers which are only unconditional if the applicant selects the university as firm choice.

These also reflected negatively on universities that offered them, with 47% of respondents saying they would feel negatively about a university that made them an offer like this, compared to 20% who would feel positive about it.

One respondent said: “I think they’re very good in practice however it is slightly manipulative of the universities who will only give an unconditional it you firm it.”

Unconditional offers can sway students’ decisions

Respondents showed they are aware of and concerned about universities using unconditional offers to manipulate applicants’ decisions.

One respondent said: “I think they can prey on the insecurities of strong students who could do better but are scared of missing a conditional offer.”

While more than half of prospective student respondents said they were unlikely to change their university decisions, 27% said receiving an unconditional offer was quite or very likely to make them choose that university over one they really wanted to go to.

Short- and long-term impact of unconditional offers

Many respondents appreciated that unconditional offers could have a positive impact on prospective students’ mental health, with 43% saying an unconditional offer would reduce the pressure of exams and allow them to do better at school or college.

But one of the most frequent points raised by respondents was the negative impact accepting an unconditional offer could have on students’ motivation to study in school or college.

Fewer than one in five (18%) said that accepting an unconditional offer would have no impact on their school or college work, whereas 39% said they would feel less motivated to receive for their exams.

Some respondents felt that students may not be equipped to deal with the pressure of university exams and assignments, and therefore struggle while at university and beyond.

And those who hadn’t received an unconditional offer were concerned about enrolling on a course alongside students who had not worked as hard or achieved the grades they needed to secure their place at that university. 

One respondent said: “Ultimately I just think unconditional offers shouldn't be handed out on a plate, and more regulation of less prestigious unis handing them out should be enforced.”

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