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.