The analysis, published by the Office for Students (OfS), shows that the dropout rate was 10 per cent higher for students who accepted unconditional offers than would have been expected if they had accepted conditional offers.
Across the 2015-16 and 2016-17 academic years, this equated to almost two hundred students dropping out who would otherwise have been expected to continue.
This increase explicitly discounts other factors about those students that are associated with dropout rates, including what subject they study and where, and demographic characteristics.
If this pattern persists while rates of unconditional offer making continue to rise, the analysis shows that over 200 students per year could drop out who would otherwise have been expected to continue.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said:
We already know that students who receive an unconditional offer are more likely to miss their predicted grades at school. It is a cause of real concern that they are also more likely to drop out of university once they get there.
Dropout rates are overall low in England, so this is a small effect. But we are not talking about one or two students. This is a couple of hundred students per year who have made a significant investment of time and money in a degree from which they are unlikely to benefit.
We have always been clear that some unconditional offers are necessary and in a student’s interests. But many of them are not. Although it is up to universities to decide who to admit and how, they must take responsibility for the impact of those decisions, and provide the right support for all students to be successful – especially if the offer they receive makes them less likely to do well at school.
As our regulatory framework sets out, admissions systems must be reliable, fair and inclusive. What we are seeing here are admissions systems that are not fair, and are not working in students’ best interests.’
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said:
Universities scrabbling to attract students with unconditional offers are too often focused on the bottom line rather than student interests. These latest figures show that many students are ill-served by the current admissions system, and that there is a real need for urgent reform.
A move to post-qualification admissions, where students receive offers after they their results, would be much fairer to students. It would eradicate the problems associated with unconditional offers, end the gamble of predicted grades and bring the whole of the UK into line with the rest of the world when it comes to university admissions.
The population included in this analysis is 18 year olds in England at universities, colleges and other higher education providers on the OfS Register.
The non-continuation rate shows the proportion of students who don’t continue from their first to second year, either at the same university or by transferring to another. Our analysis suggests that this rate is 0.65 percentage points higher – or 10 per cent proportionally higher – for students who accept an unconditional offer. In calculating this increase, we have compared students who received conditional and unconditional offers based on their predicted grades and other factors. This means that the impact of receiving an unconditional offer on the grades students actually attain is likely to explain much of the effect on continuation rates.