Are early offers turning into a problem?

A wide variety of universities have early offer programs for 2021. These have been the subject several recent newspaper articles, especially on early offers to Year 12 students.

Letting students apply for university courses and receive offers prior to the main selection process after Year 12 results isn’t new. Andrew Harvey documented many examples in 2014.

But the anxiety many Year 12 students feel about a disrupted final year of school, and their very uncertain prospects, might fuel greater interest than usual in locking in at least one part of their future.

While Year 12 students seeking an early offer is very understandable, as a university practice early offers now raise issues they did not previously.

During the demand driven system there was no need to ration student places. No applicant waiting for a TAC offer was likely to miss out because someone else had already taken an early offer. And then when the demand driven system ended Australia was in a demographic dip, lessening competition for university places for school leavers.

Early offers were as much about nervous universities trying to fill their student places as worried Year 12 students securing their enrolment.

But due to the COVID-19 recession, as my previous post argued, demand for university places is likely to significantly exceed supply in first semester 2021.

This brings back old issues of rationing university places not just for highly selective courses, but for the system as a whole.

With universities making not just early offers to Year 12 students, but also other students seeking mid-year 2020 starts, the rationing principle is ‘first come, first served’.

A benefit of the TAC system is that universities can take into account a variety of factors to make principled distinctions between all applicants, rather than just taking the first applicants who meet some threshold criterion. It would be a shame to see it break down in another round of COVID-19 panic buying.

Update 11/8/20: A Twitter response from Clare Hourigan, noting that at UQ there is a link between selection ranks for early and main round applicants.

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