Why we should not surrender to unconditional offers.

I get it, I really do.  Students are anxious, it is the second year of the new specifications, the task of revision seems impossible, undoable, insurmountable.  With a click of the button, the unconditional offer takes a lot of the stress away.  At least you know you have a place, you are safe.  But I am worried, I am really worried about the causes and consequences of the rise in unconditional offers and I think we should not surrender to this tyranny and rethink how we manage this process.

In 1999, when I started supporting students in the UCAS process, unconditional offers were as rare as hen’s teeth, reserved for that truly exceptional candidate who had impressed the admissions tutors at interview.   The universities would argue that unconditional offers represent a small proportion of all offers made and they are normally made to mature students or those who have already proven academic excellence.  Tosh!  The rise in unconditional offers is directly related to the drop in potential applicants (both in UK and EU) the marketisation of HE and the desire to fill courses.  This is not about rewarding student excellence, this is a cynical money-making exercise and it has to stop.

It is not just those universities who are at the bottom who are doing it; the mid-league and the Russell Groups are wading into this quagmire.   Has the buyers’ market distorted their purpose and made them so desperate for tuition fees?

The number of unconditional offers has risen 17-fold in the last five years.  In 2013, 2,985 unconditional offers were made to 18 years olds in England and Wales, in 2017, there were 51,615 students.  Some have said that they were being used to fill up vocational courses at less prestigious universities, but the data suggests that is not true.  UCAS reports computer science and biological sciences are among the degrees with the highest numbers of unconditional offers.

Why is it so bad?  Well, in my two decades of experience, students with unconditional offers take their feet of the gas and are not motivated to push themselves in the same way as other students.  The student could fail all of their A-levels and they would still have a place.  I guess some students might flourish without the exam anxiety but I have never known a student with an unconditional offer achieve their target grade or above.  In fact, the reports suggest they underachieve by a third.  This matters as students are not achieving their potential and, whilst they may get a degree, they will still have to record their A-level grades on every application and CV in the future.

The consequences for those of us who teach A-level students are pretty dire.  We are professionally and institutionally accountable for our results.  Students’ motivation and attendance are likely to drop.  Schools could exclude them but this would have serious consequences for their funding.  Smart students who are under performing have jumped on this bandwagon and secured their university place without having to put in the graft. Maybe the silver lining is that in a buyers’ market some students will get into prestigious universities without meeting their entry requirements.

We tell the students to be aspirational, we predict grades on best-case scenarios as we know this might be a chance for a student to get into a ‘better’ institution, aim for the moon and you might get the stars?  In return, the UCAS system gives out unconditional offers which cuts away our legs, takes away the reason why.  It does not always feel like we are playing on the same team here.

There is some concern being raised with Clare Marchant, head of UCAS calling for a “open and honest” debate about the issue and the Education Select Committee launching a report into the use of unconditional offers.  Bravo.

In the first instance, I think universities need to find more creative ways to attract students.  For example, scholarships to encourage academic achievement, fee waivers for applicants and even lower the grades for exceptional candidates, just do not make them  an unconditional offer.

More significantly, I think the system is broken in terms of providing fair access and the unconditional offer is the tip of the iceberg of what is wrong.  Rather than tinker away and continue with the smoke and mirrors games around predicted grades and wondering who wrote their personal statement; we should use this opportunity to end the charade.  We can make it better by improving the rules of the game and, as the Sutton Trust recommends, move towards a post-qualification admissions system. Vive la révolution.