On the 15th August, many thousands of former A-level students, either anxiously or confidently (or even nihilistically), tore into an envelope to uncover their reward for their efforts over the two toughest years of compulsory education.
The media provided no support. Reports of many incorrect grades arising due to inadequate marking across a variety of subjects and, on results morning, the news that the rate of top grades was at the lowest level ever probably left a fair few bracing for the worst. But year after year, results days are always the same. Eyes glare at the piece of paper in hope that what is registered is the correct ticket for their chosen destination.
Sometimes the reaction is one of jubilation, for others, it is despair. One popular destination nowadays is university, with roughly half choosing the route into higher education. But in this system, there is one notable problem that continues to persist: the use of unconditional offers, where students are guaranteed a place at university regardless of their grades.
Unconditional offers are essentially a free ticket or, better yet, a get-out-of-jail-free card regarding the countless and strenuous hours one must spend learning, revising and undertaking exam practice. A financially savvy decision would be to cancel the exams of those with unconditional offers as costs of taking A level exams run into the hundreds, thereby freeing up some money for the school (if you wish to retake an exam, that’s why schools make you pay for them).
In 2019, UCAS reported that 38 per cent of applicants received an unconditional offer with Which reporting that a quarter of applicants received a conditional unconditional offer. A conditional unconditional offer means that the offer becomes unconditional if a student selects the university as their first choice although in reality, I see no difference between the two.
After a year and a half of A-levels, the thought of a guaranteed university place must prove irresistible and I admire the many who possess the courage to stave off this enticement. That the use of unconditional offers is not universal begs the question as to which universities are handing out these offers and at what scale. Figures reveal that it is the sub-par universities on the ranking scales who are the main culprits. Numerically, it is Nottingham Trent, University of Lincoln and Sheffield Hallam who distribute the most unconditional offers and, according to TopUniversities, all rank outside the top 50 in the UK.
The universities which give out the most unconditional offers as a percentage of all offers are University of Suffolk, University of Bolton and York St. Johns, with over 70 per cent of their total offers being unconditional. TopUniversities did not include these universities in their rankings, implying that they are some of the worst in the country.
But why do they conduct this marketing tactic? University websites have the usual talking points of ‘exceptional grades’ and an ‘outstanding personal statement and references’ on their unconditional offer pages which are very subjective requirements, allowing for the main goal of funnelling as many students onto a course as possible. The top universities – those with high entry requirements and good employment prospects – do not need to engage in this practice as the prestige and the opportunities they provide alone are enough to satisfy the demand needed for course places.
I support unconditional offers when the students are objectively brilliant, and this is the only moment where top universities do this. Whether it is classed as a top university or not, I thank my university (University of Birmingham) for only offering unconditional offers to those with predicted grades of 3 As or above. This fuels ambition and forces standards up, the exact opposite of what the lower ranked universities are doing which is proving detrimental to the education system.
Schools encourage pupils to strive for the best grades possible in spite of any unconditional offers, but this has proven futile, leading to much criticism of the unconditional offer system from secondary schools. Students who accept unconditional offers are more likely to achieve lower grades with SchoolsWeek reporting that ‘67 per cent of applicants with unconditional offers missed their predicted grades, in comparison with 56 per cent of fellow students with offers that depended on their A-level grades.’
There are countless stories of A-level students falling far short of their predicted grades, achieving grades which, I would argue, show that they shouldn’t go to university at all. A little anecdote here: someone I know received their A-level results this year and were already bound for Oxford Brooks on an unconditional offer. His grades were C-D-E, far below his predicted grades but more importantly, the course’s original grade requirements. Where students do not have to earn their place but are given it on a plate, and where ambition is suppressed in favour of laziness, what kind of message does that send to those progressing through the education system?
Transfer this scenario to university level where students would be guaranteed a final result of a 2.1 no matter what but must earn a first-class degree the old-fashioned way. How many do you think will throw in the towel and relax rather than commit to toil and sacrifice? With the widespread use of unconditional offers and the devaluing of university degrees due to oversupply, it is likely that more employers will view A-level grades more seriously, along with the universities attended, to assess potential employees. Those who had accepted unconditional offers will be less competitive than those who didn’t, which is tragic when they were fully capable of going to better universities on higher grades. Given that a well-paying job and stable career is the end goal with a degree being the means, it makes you wonder what actual purpose unconditional offers serve.
But forget the world of work for a second. Unconditional offers can fail to prepare students for university itself as they have a decimated work ethic and are more likely to capitulate under the pressure of university assignments and exams as they did not build up enough experience during A-levels. This has scared universities into discontinuing their use of unconditional offers for fear of driving down standards with one such case being the University of Nottingham. Being a Russell Group, its reliance on attracting top students is paramount (which should be the case with any university) but it soon discovered that unconditional offers had a nasty side effect when trying to attract as many students as possible. In addition, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are 50 per cent more likely to receive an unconditional offer which is where the use of this practice becomes predatory. These individuals are likely the first in the family to go to university and because of a low position on the socio-economic ladder, any university, regardless of quality, prestige or future opportunities, will serve as a step up. When a university place is offered regardless of grades, this demographic will be the least likely to resist such an offer.
The Government has promised numerous investigations and crackdowns into the use of unconditional offers which is great in the sense that the issue is being noticed. But how long will it take them to figure out that unconditional offers only reduce the quality of education and set students up for failure? How long will it take the government to realise that the only beneficiaries of unconditional offers are the universities who hand them out in the first place to attract as many fee-paying students as possible? To solve this, there needs to be an all-out prohibition on the use of unconditional offers with exceptions being made for the best students in the country. A ban can’t come fast enough as, with each passing year, more students fall prey to this horrendous practice and the sooner it is outlawed, the better.