When the recent news broke that unconditional undergraduate offers in the UK now account for 7.1 per cent of all offers made to potential students, with 23 per cent of students applying to university receiving at least one unconditional offer, a chorus of disapproval rose from the sector. Notable critics included universities minister Sam Gyimah and vice-chancellors of several leading universities.
Many people have said that unconditional offers act as a disincentive for students to achieve as high a grade as they can on their level-3 programme, as they are already guaranteed a university place. Ucas research shows that students with unconditional offers are 23 per cent more likely not to attain their predicted grade on their level-3 programme, most likely because their place at university no longer hinges on their academic success.
This poorly prepares young people for academia or employment, in particular, as many graduate schemes take level-3 grades into account when screening applicants.
However, there is a more pressing concern with the increase in unconditional offers. While the assurance of an offer can comfort students who know that, whatever happens, their progression is certain, it may not be in their best long-term interests. In addition to disincentivising their achievement at level 3, unconditional offers also disincentivise students from taking a second, more considered look at their choice before they enter higher education.
We are now seeing an exceptionally competitive graduate employment market; rapid changes in labour patterns and automation in the workplace. Such shifts make it more important than ever that students make the right decision regarding their higher education. Ironically, at the very time that students should be becoming more critical consumers of higher education, the rise in unconditional offers suggests that they may be encouraged to be less so.
A lack of inclination from students completing level-3 studies to “think again” about their higher education choice owing to an unconditional offer can act to reaffirm the dominance of traditional education models, just as opportunities become more diverse through routes such as higher apprenticeships, Higher National Diplomas, fast-track two-year courses, and degree-apprenticeship hybrids.
A more traditional full-time, three-year university experience simply does not suit many learners – it might not reflect their career ambitions, it might not deliver the more career-focused skill set that they require, or it might ill suit their lifestyle. The shepherding of college- and school-leavers into unconditional offers means that they might not be given sufficient opportunity to rethink their options and consider whether they are right for them. Some students aren’t aware that other routes could lead to a degree anyway.
How, then, can we meet this challenge and ensure that college- and school-leavers are not tempted on to courses that are not appropriate for them? So much of the answer will lie in the advice that school and further education colleges provide to students.
In a changing graduate market, it will be important to ensure that people have the skills that they need to succeed in their chosen career. However, it will not always be the full-time, three-year, on-campus degree route that offers students these skills.
For many, a course that mixes academic rigour and recognition with career-focused, employer-led skills acquisition is needed. It is the responsibility of policymakers and careers advisers to ensure that learners have all the options available to them set out clearly so that they can make the right decision on their career and future.
The rise in unconditional offers is unsurprising; increases in tuition fees, the removal of student number caps and the drop in the number of school-leavers going to university means that institutions are being proactive in their recruitment strategies.
However, in the long term, shepherding students into traditional courses via the security of an unconditional offer may not be in their best interests. Nor is it in the best interests of the UK economy, which needs cutting-edge skills – many of which are offered outside the traditional three-year, on-campus undergraduate system. Therefore, rather than increasing unconditional offers, the sector collectively needs to increase students’ awareness of the range of options open to them and, where appropriate, encourage them to review their options.
Jane Baker is director of higher education qualifications at Pearson UK.