The rise of unsustainable, unconditional offers helps no one

Universities must take the lead on resolving the blight that unconditional offers place on the higher education sector, says Mike Nicholson 

January 26, 2019
Unconditional offers in the US and the UK

Ahead of next week’s Ucas release for provider level statistics, which will reveal for the first time those universities making unconditional offers, this week the Office for Students has warned universities and other higher education providers that indiscriminate use of unconditional offers is akin to pressure selling and could put them in breach of consumer law. 

Against a backdrop of unconditional offers having risen exponentially in recent years – from about 3,000 in 2013 to more than 67,000 in 2018 – this is clearly an area that the sector needs to address. We need to restore public confidence that higher education is not about admitting students at any price and explain why unsustainable, unconditional offers will help no one in the long run. 

From our experience at Bath – where we do not make unconditional offers to students awaiting their results – we understand that this is an issue of real importance both for prospective students and their parents. Over and above the already reported evidence surrounding students’ underperformance at A level as a result of unconditional offers, we believe that their university experience is negatively affected and their employment and life prospects suffer. 

When it comes to the rigours of academic life as an undergraduate, there is a clear question over whether students in receipt of unconditional offers are “university ready”. Of course universities can provide additional pastoral support, but this cannot make up for the shortfall in knowledge if those students take their foot off the gas in the last few months of A levels, or their equivalents. 

At a time when freshers should be enjoying all that university life has to offer, there is a clear danger that those desperately trying to catch up with peers will struggle, and this will have knock-on effects for their mental health and well-being. 

In terms of employability and in preparation for life post-university, we also need to be clear in our message that A levels are for life, not just Ucas applications. Despite what some tell young students, these results carry with them throughout their career journey and they matter – irrespective of whatever they go on to achieve. Universities need to work together with schools and colleges to instill that life advice, otherwise we all let our young people down. 

One of the key elements in why our graduates do well in terms of their employability is our well-established placement or study year integrated within many degrees. Real life experience as part of students’ time with us, spent working with top companies and organisations has long been one of the key pillars of a Bath degree and has contributed to strong employability outcomes. Almost 70 per cent of Bath undergraduates for 2017/18 completed a placement year as part of their degree. Organisations seeking both interns and employees look for evidence of great performance both at university and beforehand. Once again here, A levels matter.  

So if we are serious about delivering value for money for our students and providing them with the tools to succeed in the workplace, we must address the blight on the sector that is unconditional offers. As a first step, we should coalesce around a set of defined principles. 

First, be clear and transparent about when an unconditional offer is going to be made; vague statements about students being predicted to perform strongly help no one.

Second, we must decouple the link between unconditional offers and firm choices. In many instances, students’ receipt of an unconditional offer is tied to fixing that university as their firm choice. This potentially adds to the stress that a young person faces and forces their hand too early.

And finally, publish information on the performance of students who were admitted on unconditional and conditional offers. This may provide assurance that these students do not underperform at degree level. 

Universities need to take a lead on this. We must ensure that students’ choice and well-being remains at the centre of the application process and remember that academic aspiration is fundamental to student success.

We know that demographics mean there will be fewer 18-year-olds applying to university in the next few years, and this will increase competition in the higher education sector. But vying for prospective students by luring them in with attractive but unsustainable offers cannot be the solution. 

Mike Nicholson is director of student recruitment & admissions at the University of Bath. 

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