Ross Clark

Unconditionally yours

Put your name down with us, universities seem to be saying, and you can forget the stress of your A-levels

Unconditionally yours
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I know what it is like to receive an unconditional offer for university. In 1984, when I took the Cambridge entrance exam, if you passed, you then only had to meet the matriculation requirements of the university, which were two Es at A-level. For someone predicted straight As (virtually all Oxbridge candidates), that wasn’t asking a lot. It was hard not to slacken off a little, to take a mental gap year, or six months at any rate, for the last two terms of the sixth form. I slipped to a B in further maths, which seemed an embarrassment at the time, though I know others who took a bigger plunge. What with a real gap year, too, I never really did get back into numbers. After a year at Cambridge I switched out of the engineering course and have not tackled a differential equation ever since.

Unconditional offers, whereby a university accepts applicants regardless of their subsequent A-level performance, came back into the news with a vengeance in January when the new Office for Students revealed that the number of university applicants receiving them had soared from 3,000 in 2013 to 117,000 in 2018. They now account for one in seven offers. In the case of ten universities, 50 per cent or more of offers were unconditional, while at one institution, the University of Suffolk, a whopping 83.8 per cent of offers were unconditional.

It is only fair to say that those figures do exaggerate the problem. Two-thirds of unconditional offers are made to mature students, many of whom have applied with A-level results already in the bag, so there is no need to place any further conditions on their applications. Nevertheless, the proportion of unconditional offers granted to 18-year-old applicants has risen from 2 per cent to 32 per cent in the space of five years. What was once a device used mainly to attract students from schools with a very poor record of getting good grades for their pupils is now used in the case of one in eight of all university offers. A third of all students are now granted at least one such offer.

The Office for Students is not impressed, accusing universities of ‘pressure-selling’ their degrees. It is especially critical of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers — whereby universities hand out unconditional offers on the condition that the student puts the course as their first choice. Put your name down with us, the university is saying, and you can forget the stress of your A-levels.

The trouble is, if students then don’t perform for their remaining time at school they may end up arriving at university unprepared for the course. They may also find their options limited if over the summer, between leaving school and taking a place at university, they change their minds about what and where they want to study. Moreover, they may find that while the university was happy to waive A--level requirements, future employers will want to know them as well as degree results. Students with unconditional offers, a Ucas report says, have an elevated risk of dropping two grades at A-level.

But it isn’t just the effect on individual students that is concerning regarding the rise in unconditional offers. It is the effect on the whole sixth-form experience. If universities are going to hand out places that are not reliant on good results at A-level, then what is the point of sixth form at all? There is perhaps an argument for saying it doesn’t matter if students are relieved of the need to achieve top grades — that it gives them the opportunity to study without too much pressure, perhaps allowing them to develop a greater love of their subject. But to free 17- and 18-year-olds from any requirement to perform academically in their last months at school is pretty extreme. It is putting them in a situation which they will never encounter again in their working lives — and at an age when it is all too easy to slide off the rails if allowed too much freedom.

Two universities have changed their minds on unconditional offers after experiencing a drop-off in performance from students who were accepted on this basis. St Mary’s University, Twickenham, announced it was going to stop offering them last October, saying, ‘It was clear that a number of students who enrolled with us after an unconditional offer was made didn’t make the grade they expected.’ It was followed in January by Nottingham University, which last year made 3,000 out of 52,000 offers on an unconditional basis. Explaining its move, it said that students ‘may lose motivation’ if freed from the requirement to reach certain A-level grades.

There is also the question of whether unconditional offers steer students onto courses that they might regret choosing in the longer term. The number of such offers varies wildly between subjects — from 18 per cent in creative arts to 2 per cent in medicine and dentistry. In the case of creative arts, there may be a good reason for that: many colleges select pupils through portfolios or auditions, so they are in effect applying their own selection tests. Moreover, given the subjective nature of creative arts, universities or colleges might be excused for having a different opinion to A-level examiners when it comes to judging what constitutes achievement by an 18-year-old. It is less clear why 14.5 per cent of offers in ‘mass communications’ (i.e. media studies, rebranded) are unconditional. It certainly isn’t going to do anything to boost their reputation for academic rigour.

From my own experience, I know how reassuring it is to know you have a pretty well--guaranteed place at university months before you are due to start your studies there, especially when many of your friends are still beavering away, needing to land top grades in order to carry out their plans. But students who do receive unconditional offers need to be asking themselves: ‘Why isn’t this university bothered whether I get good A-level grades or not? Has it really identified me as a great talent it can’t afford to do without — or is it just desperate to fill its places?’

Interestingly, when Ucas asked students who had received unconditional offers what they thought about it, one in ten had a negative response. Eighteen-year-olds might not always be the wisest members of society, but they weren’t born yesterday.