Unconditional university offers

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By Ian Toone, Director of Policy and Research Services

Article for April 2018 Your Voice.

A recent report by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) points to an increasing trend for some universities to make unconditional offers to selected students before they have taken their A level (or other) exams.

Such offers used to be very rare (less than one per cent), but now represent over five per cent of all offers made to 18-year-olds in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.  (The situation is different in Scotland because Scottish students usually apply to university with the Scottish Highers they have already achieved, and Advanced Highers can often give them direct entry into the second year of undergraduate degree programmes at Scottish universities.)

Whilst these unconditional offers are intended to recognise students’ genuine potential to succeed at university, there are suspicions that some universities are now using such offers as part of a recruitment strategy to entice more high achieving students.   Now that government restrictions on undergraduate recruitment in England have been lifted, universities there are free to compete for students, each of whom is worth over £9,000 per year in terms of tuition fees.

Ethics and value for money

The House of Commons Education Select Committee has begun to make enquiries into this practice as part of its wider inquiry into whether higher education provides value for money.  A key question is whether universities are using this primarily as a tactic to increase revenue at the expense of maintaining high academic standards.

Some organisations are calling for the practice to be banned as they believe that it is unethical and undermines what should be a fair and transparent admissions process.  There is also some evidence that it may lead to poorer student outcomes, as holding an unconditional offer may mean that students are less motivated to work hard to achieve the highest grades in their exams. 

What such students may not fully appreciate is that, whilst accepting an unconditional offer means that the university place will not depend on their grades, there could still be an impact on future employment, as many prospective employers take account of A level and other qualifications when selecting applicants.

On the other hand, it could be argued that unconditional offers are a useful tool as they take pressure off students at what is often a very stressful time for them.  This can help to prevent mental health difficulties and support mental and emotional wellbeing.  It can also boost self-confidence, which can assist academic progress.  Also, there are some students with disadvantaged backgrounds who would benefit from receiving unconditional offers in recognition of the belief that they are beginning to show their true potential, even though much of this may not be fully realised until they get to university.

However, there are good reasons why a student might not accept an unconditional offer.  It may appear to be a bribe, or it could make the student think that the university must be desperate to make such an offer.  The student may prefer to go to a different university and is confident of achieving the grades needed to fulfil a conditional offer from that university.  Choice of university may sometimes be determined by other factors, such as location, reputation or the availability of scholarships or sponsorship.  Students should always be encouraged to seek advice.

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