The first point to make is that there is a place for unconditional offers. Universities are autonomous bodies, with responsibility for their own admissions .So, its perfectly acceptable for a University to tempt some outstanding students for courses tailor- made for their particular talents and abilities.  Then of course  there are mature students, who  already have their qualifications and those going for the  creative arts subjects, with  their portfolios  submitted to admissions tutors. In these cases unconditional offers make sense.
But there are growing ,and strong, suspicions, that the removal of the cap on student numbers and the 2012 tuition fee rise have combined to encourage universities to find innovative ways to increase numbers. First among these innovative ways, is  making many more unconditional offers, but  not always to the most appropriate students.
Universities have a clear responsibility to ensure that they only take students who are appropriately qualified and able to succeed on the course they are applying for. They should not allow students, without the potential to succeed, to continue into a route that will not benefit them.
The rise in unconditional offers, though,  is  now a fact of life .
In 2013, there were 2,985 unconditional offers but this year, 2018 they numbered 67,915 – a phenomenal growth of 2,175%, according to UCAS. This means 22.9% of applicants received an unconditional offer in this cycle.  The trend is pretty clear, backed by anecdotal evidence too.
Matt Warman MP, for example, in the Commons on 28 March 2018, said that ” already this year, 23 students at Boston Grammar School have received an unconditional offer from at least one university. That is more than a third of the students from the school who have applied to universities for admission through UCAS.”
So ,what is the problem with unconditional offers?First off, unconditional offers tend to come with conditions. the main one ,of course,   is that students must place that university as their first choice. So, it follows that  students may be encouraged to pick a lower-performing university or a course that is not ideal for them. In other words, they hedge their bets. In the past, its safe to assume that unconditional offers were often made on the basis that students were perfect matches or star pupils, but that seems no longer the case..
If a student accepts an unconditional offer, once accepted , they lose their second choice. If they do  happen to change their mind, they have to be released from the contract and then go into clearing. And there are no guarantees that they would find an appropriate course once in clearing. It is also the case that growth in unconditional offers is not for the most part  from the most selective universities, those that top the  the league tables ,but from elsewhere.

Also, unconditional offers tend not to come in the subjects for which university entrance is the most hotly contested.So for example, less than 0.1% of all medicine and dentistry students received unconditional offers in the last round.

Perhaps, the  major criticism levelled at applicants being given an unconditional firm offer, is that with a secure place, they will not put themselves under pressure to achieve their predicted grades and take their foot off the pedal and begin coasting . Its an issue that has been flagged up by a number of Heads who have found it difficult to motivate their  pupils. But, the fact is your exam results do actually matter, and they are not just about admission to university, they are on your CV for life.

Students taking the foot off the pedal could also increase stress /anxiety levels once at university. They are expected to become independent learners, in a very different teaching and learning environment. They should be developing these skills making their  transition easier, not coasting towards these new challenges, and this is particularly the case with disadvantaged pupils who may  find it particularly  difficult to cope with the academic demands of university life (and are more likely as things stand to drop out)

The Minister, Sam Gyimah, has made his concerns abundantly clear. “Some students may coast in their studies at school or college or perhaps not even complete their course. Another possibility is that students might accept the obvious attractions of an unconditional offer at one institution, rather than a conditional offer at an institution that would better suit their ability level.” He continued “I want to be clear that higher education providers should not make unconditional offers to students who lack the talent and potential to complete a higher education qualification, especially when those students may benefit from exploring different education options or becoming employed on finishing their A-level qualifications.”
The OfS has been asked by Gyimah to analyse the relationship between unconditional offer making and subsequent outcomes in non-continuation, attainment, progression to postgraduate study and employment. Where the OfS identifies a problem, the Minister ‘ expects it to take action in accordance with its powers set out in legislation.’ So Universities need to be careful. It seems that the Minister has every intention of intervening ,if he sees no progress in this area.
Meanwhile UCAS advises applicants to wait until they have received initial decisions from all their university and college choices and then to consider them carefully before accepting an unconditional offer as their firm choice. It also emphasises to students who accept unconditional offers the importance of completing their qualifications to the best of their ability, recognising that employers are likely to be interested in their exam results as well as their degree classification.
With many more Universities opting for unconditional offers, Vice Chancellors who may currently  be resistant to the idea ,will feel under increasing pressure to jump on the bandwagon, however reluctantly. The issue is now moving into the Regulators court, so watch this space.



Why has political debate become so nasty and personal? If you look at the internal debates in the Labour party around the anti-semitism issue, or discussions around  Brexit, among Tories, the tone of the debates and personal vitriol meted out on both sides is extraordinary and almost unprecedented. Twitter users  find that if  they  put their  head above the parapet and give a political  opinion on  anything, they become the target, more often than not ,of personal attack, and sometimes  direct threats . The person rather than the argument is attacked.   Was it  the Scottish referendum in 2014 that was the Ground Zero in nasty politics ? Or was it the EU referendum?  Both binary issues,   they seemed to encourage a black and white, simplistic  , Manichean view of the world  in which tribalism and group identity came to the fore. Nicola Sturgeon  preached inclusive nationalism, while  an army of “cybernats” targeted unionist commentators online. They were  “collaborators” with a quasi-colonialist power or simply ‘traitors’.  JK Rowling was just one of many high profile targets for vicious attack.  Her crime? A commitment to supporting the Union. This was a space in which no quarter was given. Tribal and group identities were quickly formed and constantly reinforced . Even BBC reporters were  targeted . The most passionate turned to threats and name calling. The better educated, predisposed to   analysing issues and their innate complexity, were more doubtful ,less certain, less aggressive and less heard . So why has it come to this?

Politicians may be partly to blame.  Promises were made , warnings were given,  and dodgy statistics brazenly  used  in campaigns, that subsequently turned out  to be bogus. Who, then, can the  People trust?   They look elsewhere, in search  of fellow travellers, and find them on  the internet .

This is an era in which personal feelings trump reason, encouraging emotional rather than intellectual responses to often complex issues . Arguably the internet itself is poisoning the political well, conversation and discussion . Civility has departed. The researchers Yphtach Lelkes, Gaurav Sood and Shanto Iyengar have linked polarisation firmly to internet usage. For instance, because broadband coverage spread unevenly across the US, they were able to track its arrival compared with residents’ political views. “Access to broadband internet increases partisan hostility,” they concluded  in 2015 .“Access to broadband internet boosts partisans’ consumption of partisan media, a likely cause of increased polarisation.”

And maybe the structure of the internet itself makes productive disagreement harder. As well as its polarising effects, Facebook makes it hard to distinguish high- and low-quality information sources. It encourages users to stay inside its walled garden, and sit in an echo chamber hearing views that bounce back and  reinforce their own, not bothering to get out and test their views , against others through  rational debate.  Virtual discussions and debate, in which you are not  physically close to those you are arguing against ,therefore  unable to read their eyes, and  gauge their  body language,  may also encourage  more hostility and a lack of empathy.   So, how do we make our political conversation less toxic?

Part of  the answer must  lie in encouraging responsible, respectful debate, as early as possible within education systems . Teaching students  to listen to,  and to hear others ,  showing them how to construct a reasoned  evidence informed argument, and to  engage others with civility and respect. All this is infinitely possible. Look at the ideas of Martin  Robinson, in his book  the Trivium, influenced by  the Greeks conception of education, updated for  modern times- in which students are taught grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

The political speechwriter turned columnist Philip Collins thinks that those with a platform have a “responsibility to be civil, as courteous as we can be”, but also that the social networks need to take more responsibility for the phenomena they have encouraged.  Maybe they are slowly beginning to do so: Twitter introduced a “mute” function in 2014, and now allows users to screen out unwanted replies.
The rise of ad-blocking software, and Facebook’s algorithm changes, are both making life chillier for viral news sites. Facebook itself, under pressure from politicians, is working on ways to identify scammers and grifters and to combat group polarisation. State-sponsored trolls and bots the purveyors of disinformation,  are still out there, but at least the scale of the disinformation crisis is beginning to emerge and some action is  now being taken to shut down sites . Some Universities are even  now teaching their students how to identify reliable sources on the internet. .
I think that political leaders politicians and journalists all have a role in standing back and acknowledging that the rules of engagement have been changed ,but not in a good way. Our  political culture has changed for the worst. So it requires, firstly,an acknowledgement that we have a problem, then a conscious deliberate effort to change this and call out the worst offenders. More regulation of the internet may be required as the largest platforms have been signally  lax at self-regulation. Educators can do their bit in ensuring that students understand from an early age the  first principles that underpin civilised discourse and rational argument and then  test these first principles in practice.

There are certain universal liberal values   that western democracies have always stood for- including freedom of speech,  and expression  and,  importantly, tolerance and respect for  others views, cultures and religions. You dont have to agree with others ,  and should robustly argue your case, but always,  at the very  least , show tolerance  respect and civility. Dont let the sociopaths prevail.   The pursuit of truth is vital but  should be fun, not a war of attrition.


The Times tells us that a growing number of academics and registrars are backing the campaign by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) to create a “hostile environment” for companies that charge students hundreds or thousands of pounds to write bespoke essays. The Minister Sam Gyimah  flagged this issue as one of his major concerns in his 5th  September speech. Endemic cheating could mean  that some universities are starting to move away from essays to alternative assessment or a greater focus on exams.  But the system seems to have been remarkably slow at responding to this issue.

Essay Mills’ provide custom written essays for students to cheat with. Prices range from a couple of hundred pounds for a single essay to over £6,750 for a PhD dissertation. This undermines the high standards of universities and is unfair to honest students – but is currently legal. Strange that. Jim Dickinson tested the water recently when he   tweeted ‘ ‘Can I pay someone else to write my assignment?’ and was inundated with replies offering assistance. For example: @perfectessays49 Replying to @jim_dickinson

‘Hello there, I am an experienced writer and I would like to offer assistance on your essay. Just DM me the instructions so I can get started 7:43 AM – 2 Sep 2018.

And‏ @TrustedWriters  Sep 2 Replying to @jim_dickinson ‘Hello, I can ace the assignment for you. Kindly DM for a deal.’

It does rather beg the question- Are Universities soft on cheating? After all, removing students costs them, and it could cost them quite a lot.  If you dismiss an international student, for example,  for cheating- how much would that cost? In 2017, international students paid between £10,000 and £35,000 a year for an undergraduate degree, although medical degrees at some of the best universities went up to £38,000 a year.  It really isnt terribly difficult to spot cheats. There is software available and  half competent  tutors with some awareness of their students abilities and writing styles  should be  able to spot  discrepancies and warning signs.Students also leave digital footprints.

Students of course should  be warned about Essay Mills too. They need to be made aware that not only do these Mills charge quite a lot of money,  (most students are not cash rich)many of them ,  indeed most, are not very good at essay writing, nor, indeed   at answering the question. Formulaic answers are commonplace. If you want a First Class Degree or good 2;1 forget it.  Students also expose themselves to a risk of blackmail. And if things go horribly wrong, and they receive a poor grade , there are no come backs. If you get caught cheating it is somewhat career limiting, and you will carry that baggage for the rest of your life. In terms of risks and returns its a no brainer.  Dont do it!

Its good that the Minister Sam Gyimah ,who seems to be thriving in his current role, is taking a keen  personal interest in this issue.



“For a school to care more about its standing in the league tables than its duty to nurture the best in every pupil – the meaning of education – is a disgrace.” opined The Times in its  leader on 28th August, calling  for prompt action on off-rolling, following its  in depth investigation into this growing practice.

Off-rolling is precisely what it says. It’s the removal by one means or another, of students from a school’s roll. In this case shortly before taking GCSEs.  It is not hard to see why schools do this.  They are judged on their GCSE results and seek to secure a good ranking  in the League Tables. Dropping down these tables signifies decline or failure. Rising up the order, the opposite.   Troublesome  and disruptive pupils tend not to get good grades , which drags a school down the league tables. Even a small number of bad results can profoundly impact on a school’s relative position in these tables. The Headteachers’ Roundtable told the Education Select Committee recently  that schools “who retain children with challenging behaviour risk disruption, poor outcomes (significant impact on Progress 8, EBacc etc), low attendance, low staff morale, increased intervention costs [ … ], complaints from parents, high exclusions costs and ultimately, critical and high stakes Ofsted gradings.”. An Education Datalab study in 2017 ‘ Whose Left’  concluded that in some cases pupils are being “managed out” of mainstream schools so as  to “boost the league table performance of the school the pupil leaves.”

While exclusions are an important tool in any schools armoury to control discipline and prevent ,or alleviate,  disruption, there has long been a suspicion  that some schools are misusing this tool to secure league table positions more than for  any other reason . Some schools with disruptive pupils are much better at inclusion than others with the same challenges.

Ofsted has urged its inspectors to crack down on schools found to be “off-rolling” pupils, suggesting those transferring large numbers of children before their Year 11 exams could be sanctioned

Sean Harford, Ofsted’s director of education, has told inspectors to check if the number of pupils on roll reduces towards the school’s final secondary year – indicating they may be being moved elsewhere.

In a school inspection update, Harford said there was now “national evidence” that large numbers of pupils were being moved into alternative provision, or to other schools whose rolls are not full – known as “off-rolling”. It has already begun an investigation, which has identified 300 schools with high dropout rates, and is considering changes to its inspections from next year to curb the practice.

The Times, this week, revealed that last year almost 13,000 teenagers did not have their results recorded in league tables, despite appearing on their schools’ rolls a year earlier. Though it concedes that some of these pupils were excluded for legitimate reasons, such as consistently disruptive behaviour, the removal of so many before exams suggests that schools are excluding those likely to perform poorly. The number of pupils removed in the months before exams had been just over 9,000 in each of the previous two years. The rise in exclusions means that more than 7,000 students who have just completed their GCSE year did so in pupil referral units. This is more than double the number of any other school year.

In January there were 7,420 Year 11 pupils in referral units — more than double the 3,245 Year 10 pupils who had been in the units the year before. The figures show that 4,175 teenagers were placed in the units in the months before their GCSE exams this year. Students’ chances of success drop significantly once they are sent to the units. Some are expected to attend only for a few hours a week and experts say that street  gangs recruit members directly from the units.

A recent report by the education select committee, entitled Forgotten Children, highlighted the issue of off-rolling by secondary schools. It found that between 2006/7 and 2012/13, the number of permanent exclusions reduced by nearly half, but has since risen, with a 40% increase over the past three years. Its chairman, the Tory MP Robert Halfon, told The Times: “Off-rolling is a huge problem. Not only are schools gaming the system but as a result thousands of vulnerable children are not getting the education they deserve. They are the victims of schools that manipulate statistics.”  Not only is it a problem, but its also unlawful. Nick Gibb, the Minister, was clear about this. He told the Committee on 1 May 2018  “ Off-rolling is unlawful. There is only one reason a school can exclude a pupil permanently from a school, and that is due to behavioural issues. Off-rolling, to the extent that it occurs, is unlawful. Ofsted and the system as a whole will be vigilant in looking out for those practices.”. The Committee also argued that given its DfEs accountability measures that have led to this practice, its really up to them to resolve it and not just pass the problem  on to Ofsted.

The Department for Education ,apparently  in an attempt to reassure,  said that although there had been an increase in the number of exclusions, the issue was worse ten years ago. A spokeswoman said: “Informal or unofficial exclusions are unlawful and we wrote to schools last year to remind them of the rules. Permanent exclusion should only ever be used as a last resort.”

The solution, suggests the Times ,is two-fold.’ First, the government should change the rules so that, if children are excluded in the year before GCSEs, their results still count towards schools’ rankings. That would remove the incentive for heads to remove children for academic reasons. Second, the regulator needs to put schools with a habit of off-rolling on notice. Matthew Coffey, Ofsted’s chief operating officer, has promised further research to better understand the trend, but that may come too late for this year’s cohort of GCSE students.’

See Education Datalab report



See Select Committee Report

Forgotten children: alternative provision and the scandal of ever increasing exclusions


August is always challenging for news editors. News is in short supply , and the depths have to be plumbed.   Cue Labour politician, Dawn Butler,  blasting TV chef, Jamie Oliver, for, allegedly,  ‘cultural appropriation.’ Recently Jamie  had the temerity to  launch  a product called ‘Punchy Jerk Rice,’ which, according to Butler,  a politician  who has remained largely in the shadows until now, is clearly  ‘appropriation from Jamaica’ and ‘needs to stop.’ Now, it has to be said,  Jamie riles a few  people,  including  some of his fellow cooks. But if you are going to attack him, do so from solid ground (his fish pie recipe is a cracker by the way!)  I hope that Ms Butler, who obviously has time on her hands,  will, even now, be  warning the British Italian community that Mr Oliver has a chain of restaurants called ‘Jamie’s Italian’ while, not actually being Italian.(as Jamie knows ,Pasta was ‘appropriated’  from China, by the way).  The use  of  the idea  of cultural appropriation  is becoming, daily ever  more absurd. It is anti-progressive , anti- cosmopolitan and profoundly illiberal  .It also has more than a nodding,  passing acquaintance with nationalism,  populism,   and identity politics. When it comes to food and cuisine, well.. it aint copyrighted. The best cuisine has always been  highly  derivative, subject to many cultural and ethnic influences, and to experimentation, creativity and science, and has never been  cast in stone. It  has to move  on constantly, adapting  and embracing change. Butler, on this evidence,  should return to the backwaters of Westminster politics, and  leave our Jamie alone.


It may well not be on your radar,  but the Central European University in Hungary, led  by Canadian intellectual  Michael Ignatieff, is under threat from Hungarys populist leader Viktor Orbán.  In  April this university – a beacon, it has to be said, of democratic values in Central Europe – was the subject of a law  passed  that aims to close it down  next year.  Ignatieff should know by this  Christmas whether he has a job there  or not, in 2019.
Ignatieff has become  a central figure in the battle against populist, deeply conservative, reactionary politics in Eastern Europe. If Orbán wins this battle , it would be the first time that a member of the European Union dares to legislate an attack on the academic freedom of a university in Europe. Can the EU really stand by and watch this happen? Probably.
Ignatieff argues, persuasively  that academic freedom is a core European value and a right that protects us all, not a privilege of the professorial elite, as it is sometimes misrepresented. His description of universities as important “counter-majoritarian institutions”  should resonate . He sees them as just as   vital to society as a free press and an independent judiciary, in counter-balancing majority governments.
Ignatieff  had  assumed, naively perhaps,  that Hungary, relieved of its  soviet yoke and now a member of the EU, would be receptive to liberal ideas,  values and ,of course,  education . The CEU  might  create a cadre of students who could  absorb these values.,  go out into society and help transform the political culture. Eastern European universities had been churning out bureaucrats and scientists schooled in the finer points of marxist theory,  and the primacy of the state and the collective . Surely a new Hungarian   elite, now members of the EU and  cherishing its values   and  accessing US and Hungarian accredited courses – would be created espousing the values that  most support  in the west . Quite a few of them, understandably , when given the chance, saw their futures in Paris,  Berlin and London but the CEU  nonetheless still   quickly developed a cosmopolitan and diverse international student base.  Until recently  this worked pretty  well .
Ignatieff is painfully honest in his analysis of the CEUs  predicament  “What we did not see coming at CEU is that we trained the liberal democratic transition elite, but we trained the elites that lost. In Hungary the post-1989 liberal democratic elite were pulverised in the elections. We are now facing all the consequences of having trained the elite that lost.” “The liberal transition story we believed was that we would move from liberalisation of the market to inevitable liberalisation of thought to inevitable liberalisation of politics, with universities as a kind of battering ram in the charge towards liberal democracy. Suddenly we weren’t allowed to have a dual legal American identity, which meant we couldn’t issue American accredited degrees in Hungary because local Hungarian universities were jealous of the fact that we could award United States masters and PhDs. They saw it as our competitive advantage and the national bourgeoisie supported by the state wanted to ‘level the playing field’.”

It is the case that authoritarian regimes ,whether in  Europe , Russia or China,  dont see Universities as products of the Enlightenment and bastions of freedom of thought and expression, cultivating individuals in pursuit of  the truth . Instead, Universities are there to serve the interests of the state, not the individual,   to sustain   public administration, to control their future bureaucracy and to provide skills  for the economy.  They are not interested in liberal values. And local  traditional universities, of course ,do not want any troublesome  competition.
Ignatieff says “ All of these regimes are trying to create what used to be called a national bourgeoisie, attendant on subsidies, state support, state contracts, state education. So these are regimes that use education to create a national bourgeoisie which will in turn support them to the degree that they depend on elections at all. And this electoral base supports this kind of regime because it supports migration control.”
He  is almost certainly right that they dont  want a multicultural, pluralist future. So, control of universities is part of an attempt to re-engineer these societies and to defend them as mono-ethnic societies controlled by their own state-supported national bourgeoisie.

This is all the more shocking because Hungary is a member of the EU . The EU stands for democratic values and is  supposed to be keen on sharing, defending and  promoting  these values. Its part  of the deal for  being a member of the club.  One reason why Turkey has found its application for admission to the  EU kicked into the long grass  is that it doesn’t quite get these values under its authoritarian   leader Erdogan,  who is culling universities of  everyone who doesnt overtly  support him,  his world view and his party.

But Hungary is being allowed to ignore the  EUs   values. One has to ask, Why? And lets hope that a slightly more worldly wise Ignatieff , and the CEU,  are   still   there  well    into  the New Year and beyond.  But they need help from EU political establishment, and they richly deserve it.


Robert Pirosh, a  struggling New York copywriter, had suffered much rejection in his search for a job . He decided to give up on the Big Apple and try his luck in Hollywood. His decision inspired him enough to pen  one of the greatest of all covering letters. It  ultimately, secured him a long term  job .with MGM . They made a good choice.   Pirosh went on to  win  an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work on the war film, Battleground. Later he was awarded a Golden Globe. This was the  letter  that caught MGM’s eye:

 Dear Sir:

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave “V” words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s-sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.

I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.

I have just returned and I still like words. 

May I have a few with you?