Unconditional offers can deter students from reaching their full potential

The rapid increase in the number of unconditional offers being made to school-leavers is cause for concern, says Mike Nicholson

December 15, 2017
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Yesterday’s Ucas end-of-cycle data show a 40.2 per cent year-on-year increase in the number of unconditional offers received by school-leavers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is a reflection of the increased competition in undergraduate recruitment and admissions that some universities are increasingly relying on unconditional offers as a route to securing their student numbers.

According to Ucas research, applicants holding unconditional offers are 23 per cent more likely to fall short of their predicted A-level grades than their peers with conditional offers. This confirms what teachers have been saying for some time: the receipt of an unconditional offer demotivates many students and deters them from reaching their full potential. This has implications later in life because many graduate employers still use A-level performance when shortlisting for internships, placements and graduate entry schemes.

While many universities that provide unconditional offers claim that it reduces stress and uncertainty among applicants, I’m not aware of any institution that won’t then expect students to take exams and assessments as an integral part of securing their university degree. Schools and colleges have gone through significant trials and tribulations in order to introduce new post-16 qualifications, and it seems perverse for some universities to then undermine the activity by suggesting that performance in the qualifications at school isn’t important.

This is particularly the case with the new A levels in England, where much of the final grade is determined by performance at the end of the two years of study. I’m not aware that any universities making extensive use of unconditional offers have published details of student outcomes once they are on their degree course, or identified what specific academic support a candidate receives if they gain admission having significantly underperformed on their grades after receiving an unconditional offer.

More transparency on these issues would stifle much of the current criticism and would build confidence that those receiving unconditional offers were not being set up to then underperform on their degree course.

There is also a lack of transparency in the criteria over how candidates are identified for an unconditional offer. Statements around “exceptional performance” and “minimum GCSE attainment” – without indicating specifically what is meant – leave the whole process very opaque. The sector has come a long way in being more transparent over admission criteria. The unconditional offer seems therefore to be a very retrograde step. 

Finally, claims that unconditional offers promote opportunity for degree-level study would be much more believable if universities allowed candidates to determine whether they wanted to take such offers as their “firm” (preferred) or “insurance” option. This would allow a student to have certainty of an unconditional place, while also enabling them to aspire to a course at their firm choice of university, which is setting academic conditions on their entry.

The University of Leicester provides a notable example of a university that allows the candidate the freedom to select. Many others provide the unconditional offer to students only when the student is prepared to accept them as the firm choice. This suggests that the unconditional offer is more about securing student numbers than encouraging candidates to opt for their most appropriate course and university.

The University of Bath continues to make only conditional offers to candidates who have not yet secured the necessary qualifications for entry to our degree courses. It is becoming increasingly difficult to hold this line, but on grounds of fairness and transparency to our applicants, as well as to assist them in securing excellent placements, internship and employment opportunities, we remain committed to this position.

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

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