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Why cutting down on unconditional offers is not a bad thing


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Last week it was reported that England's higher education watchdog has warned universities that unconditional offers could lead to them losing their status as an institution.

I am sure that few of us are lacking in opinions about this. The Office for Students (OfS) has claimed that unconditional offers for a place at university are in the same league as pressure selling and could be in breach of consumer law, due to their ‘strings-attached’ nature. Consequently, the regulator has announced that it is prepared to take action against universities and colleges that misuse the offers.

Some of us have gone to university on an unconditional offer, others have not. It’s hard not to see the benefits of unconditionals: applicants still at school have a place at university regardless of what results they get in their exams, and this undeniably takes the pressure off stressed students. We all know, however, that everything good has a downside.

I find the worst offender of the unconditional offers to be the ‘conditional unconditional’ – this is where the offer is only unconditional if students make the offer their firm choice. These offers prey on the insecurities of strong students, who may be worried about achieving conditional offers in a somewhat volatile exam system – I know that I certainly was. They pressure students to make snap decisions, and choose a university that may not be the best one for them - just to have the guarantee of a place next September.

This is, at best, bordering on illegal and at worst, completely immoral. Unconditionals are supposed to relieve the stress of getting into university, but by having ‘strings attached’, they can give applicants even more to think and worry about.

Image Credit: Wokandapix // Pixabay

Some students have said that these ‘conditional-unconditionals’ lead them to believe that universities don’t really care what grades they get, but simply how many empty places the institution can fill. It’s easy to understand why recipients of the offers have often been left feeling undervalued and nothing more than a ‘bum on a seat’.

I also wonder why the credibility of universities giving out unconditionals isn’t more damaged, as so many students who receive unconditional offers don’t go on to receive the grades that would have been required if their offer had conditions. OfS actually found that students with unconditionals were more likely to miss their predicted grades.

This is mainly for two reasons. Firstly, students are regularly predicted grades higher than they are able to achieve by their schools, and then can’t attain the marks in their exams. This inflating of grades is done by schools to make their students appear more desirable to universities. This makes me feel rather conflicted, because although these students get to study their course of choice, the fact they didn’t get the right grades might suggest that it’s not actually the right one for them.

It’s also undeniable that there are students who receive unconditionals and thus don’t feel pressured anymore to get good grades, so become quite complacent and end up not working to their full potential for their exams. Again, this makes me feel a bit sad because unconditionals can actually stop us from reaching our potential, and maybe achieving better grades than we ever expected through hard work. Conditionals are stressful, but arguably also motivating.

I worry too about people taking their foot ‘off the pedal’ like this, because the grades that UK students receive at 18 often stay with us for the rest of our lives. They can be key when applying for jobs or postgraduate study in years to come – they don’t just serve the sole purpose of admission to university. Yes, an unconditional can mean less worry in those last months of school, but is it worth it when those less than ideal grades come back to bite? Imagine that person’s feeling when they’re rejected for a dream job simply because someone else had better A-Level grades, despite having what could be amazing grades at university.

I’m pleased to hear that some universities have already taken measures to tackle the growing problems associated with unconditional offers. Not all universities make them to begin with, and others did offer them but have now stopped. St Mary’s, in Twickenham, had a trial period of giving out unconditional offers but found that too many students missed their predicted grades, and so only gave conditional offers from then on.

Some universities that still make unconditional offers also offer attached bursaries for those that perform well in their exams, meaning that students are still motivated to achieve their predicted grades. This goes to show that unconditionals aren’t deserving of being totally vilified – they just need a bit of tweaking to make them work in the best way possible.

Unconditional offers are undoubtedly an area of higher education policy that will likely see some adjustment in the coming years, as more and more speak out and seek reform that is fair to both universities and students. I personally am keen to see an education system that neither excessively pressures students, nor makes life too easy for them. We should have to work hard to get into university – no one denies that it sets us up with opportunities forever that we would not have had otherwise. Anyway… what’s life without the challenge?

Lead Image Credit: Wokandapix // Pixabay


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