The government seems determined to turn universities into competitive market places. Lisa Freedman of At the School Gates investigates the problem of unconditional offers 

When I was at school, a boy I knew used to brag about the fact that he’d got into Oxford with ease. It was, however, a joke. He had, in fact, won his place at Oxford with two grade Es in his A Levels. In those days, most university offers, were ‘unconditional’, i.e. if you passed your exams, you were through the door, even of the most hallowed institutions.

Last summer, however, a new educational ‘scandal’ emerged, as a more recent incarnation of the ‘unconditional offer’ seemed to be in surprising ascendance. In July 2018, the university admissions body UCAS announced that the number of ‘unconditional’ offers made to UK 18 year olds had risen from just 2,985 in 2013 to 67,915 in 2018.

Before this recent explosion – now representing over 7 per cent of university applications – virtually all places at UK universities were dependent on applicants achieving specified grades in their A Levels or equivalents. Even then, however, there were exceptions, particularly for those whose talent trumped their exam technique, and a strong portfolio or audition has always taken precedence over the mark scheme.

The current inflation in unconditional offers is, of course, entirely unsurprising. It coincides with the government determination to turn higher-education into a competitive marketplace, first by tripling tuition fees for those entering university in 2012, then by ‘uncapping’ student numbers in 2015, allowing universities to admit as many students as they wished as long as applicants met the minimum requirements.

Universities, of course, reacted like the businesses they have been forced to become, maximising their appeal to the broadest numbers, and, in the government’s telling phrase, putting students ‘in the driving seat’.  Canny applicants, like well-educated consumers of trainers or mobile phones, are of course attracted by cut-price entry. Hence the growth of the unconditional offer.

What is now worrying government ministers is that this policy may have led to lower ‘standards’, specifically fearing this outcome at leading brand ‘Russell Group’ universities, such as Birmingham, which was one of the first to introduce the practice, and Nottingham. Somewhat ironically, Sam Gyimah, the Conservative MP and former Minister for Universities, accused universities of acting in a ‘completely irresponsible’ manner, and undermining ‘the credibility of the university system’.

What’s worrying is that the policy may have led to lower standards

Universities, however, like airlines and restaurants, are now heavily dependent on fee-paying customers to stay afloat, and need to know in advance if they have sufficient numbers to fill the beds in their halls of residences or students in their German department to justify offering this increasingly rarefied ingredient. These budgetary considerations have become particularly pressing during a period when the number of 18 years olds is – albeit briefly – in decline.

The most recent hullabaloo has focussed specifically on students failing to work for their exams in the wake of receiving an unconditional offer, with Mike Buchanan, executive director of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses Conference, which represents 289 UK independent schools, suggesting that, recipients may perhaps ‘take their foot off the gas’.

Heads of independent schools, however, don’t seem overwhelmingly in agreement with his premise.

‘We’ve not found unconditional offers affect performance,’ says Rachel Dent, head of high-flying all-girls’ independent school, the Abbey School in Reading. ‘On the other hand, we have found that for a number of girls they do take away a lot of the anxiety. Girls can be certain where they’re going, can sort out their accommodation and get to enjoy their summer holidays.’

Dr Millan Sachania, headmaster of Clapham and Streatham High School, a selective Girls’ Day School Trust school in South London, agrees, arguing that getting pupils to work should be his responsibility, not that of the universities.

‘Our girls do just as well, if not better, because they’re more relaxed. If that’s not the case, the school needs to hold students to account. It’s a matter of discipline. Work has to come in, it has to be marked. Pupils have to appreciate that they’re part of a school community and these are the expectations.’

Schools, of course, recognise that A-Level results can have significant consequences for life after university, when employers continue to use this universally understood benchmark as a means to sift job applicants, and Dr Sachania makes it clear to his sixth formers, too, that their first choice of university course may not necessarily be their last.

‘If the course they’ve chosen doesn’t work out and they want to change, the right qualifications will give them much more flexibility to do so.’

If pupil application does not appear an overwhelming issue, headteachers do have more over-arching criticisms of the unconditional-offer system.  One of these is its inconsistency, with not all universities adopting the practice and even those who do not handing out unconditional offers in an even-handed manner.

It’s finally time for universities to make offers based on grades achieved, not those predicted

‘We’ve monitored it and found that we’ll have two students with identical profiles in the same subject and one is getting an unconditional offer and the other isn’t,’ says Rachel Dent, who feels universities need to be more transparent about their decision making.

To address the issue, Dent believes, as do many others, that it’s finally time that universities started to make offers based on achieved rather than predicted grades, with final exams sat and marked earlier allowing the introduction of a new type of admissions system.

‘The International Baccalaureate (IB), for example, sets exams in May and publishes results in early July. If A Levels used the same time frame, it would be possible to offer all applicants places after they knew their results.’

Given that many universities now fill spare places through ‘Clearing’, which involves three weeks in August, this new world order would have less impact on academics’ summer holiday, one of the key arguments against altering the status quo.

Earlier exams and actual grades would ensure that both students and universities could be in the ‘driving seat’, though rising numbers of 18 year olds over the next few years and the mooted reintroduction of the numbers cap may eradicate the ‘E’zy route long before.

Lisa Freedman runs the education consultancy, At The Schools Gates,

For information on applying to Oxbridge, click here