Six under-reported points in today’s debate about the sharp rise in unconditional offers for applicants to higher education.
- The autonomy of universities over whom to admit is enshrined in primary legislation. This was confirmed in the most recent higher education act, which was passed just over a year ago. This means the room for action on restricting unconditional offers is strictly limited without a change to the law. Those who are calling for something to be done therefore need to explain how this is to happen.
- Moving to a system of post-qualification admissions, as exists in other countries, may have some advantages. It presumably would tackle the phenomenon whereby an exam candidate with an unconditional offer takes their foot off the pedal and coasts along, which teachers regularly describe as a problem. But, unless post-qualification admissions were to be accompanied by a minimum entry standard, it wouldn’t automatically tackle the issue of higher education institutions letting people in with lower grades – which seems to be the goal of many critics of the rise in unconditional offers. Universities would still be free to let individuals in with grades below their regular entry standard if they chose to do so.
- The rise in unconditional offers is, rightly, being linked to the removal of student number controls. However, one important driver is the falling birthrate 18 years ago (see chart), which means there are just fewer school leavers than for many years. So of course institutions need to fight harder to recruit entrants. The tide will turn again, but not until the early 2020s onwards.
- There are different sorts of unconditional offers. Some do have strings attached (so are not really ‘unconditional’ in a pure sense) – for example, the unconditional offer may be conditional on making the offering institution your firm choice. Others have bells and whistles attached, such as financial incentives.
- If, when the exam results roll in, an applicant feels they have accepted an unconditional place a little too rashly or has simply changed their mind, they can ask the institution that has given them an unconditional offer to release them so that they can enter clearing. In the ‘buyer’s market’ we currently have, they may be able to find a course or institution that they feel is a better fit for them at that stage. But to improve their chances, they need to act quickly as courses do fill up. If you are a worried applicant who wants to change their mind but is worried about doing so, remember two things: first, universities do not want unhappy students; and universities have seen it all before – whatever you decide, you won’t be the first to be do it. Follow your heart.
- Finally, universities work best when they are diverse. For this reason, we should be wary of opposing unconditional offers just because the end result could be more diverse student bodies: some of today’s commentary implies unconditional offers are a bad thing because certain people will arrive at certain universities that they would otherwise have been unable to enter. But, if those students go on to thrive, that is surely positive. Indeed, if unconditional offers counter some of the negatives arising from our hyper-selective university entrance system by delivering more diverse student bodies, they can’t be all bad.