Could Unconditional Offers be Doing More Harm than Good?

Ella Patenall

Updated January 16, 2020 Updated January 16

By Lizzie Exton

2018 has seen a sharp spike in the number of A-Level students being made unconditional offers by UK universities.  According to statistics newly released by UCAS, the number of unconditional offers made in England, Wales and Northern Ireland grew by nearly a third and now make up a little over seven percent of all the offers made.

For many that will have been a welcome relief, meaning they secured a place at their preferred university and felt less pressure to perform well during exam season.  But could the rise in unconditional offers do more harm than good in the long-run, and is it a trend which looks set to continue?

Good news for students?

There has arguably never been a more stressful time to be an A-Level student.  On top of the age-old pressure to do well in their exams, young students feel the strain of comparing themselves to others on social media and have increased worries about the cost of university.  Securing an unconditional offer can help ease some of that burden, as it means they know there’s a place for them even if they somehow manage to underperform in their exams.

There will probably have been a sigh of relief from both students and parents alike when they found they’d received a free ticket to university, but there’s something troubling the rise in unconditional offers.  The same UCAS report found that almost a quarter (23 percent) of those who received an unconditional offer went on to fall short of the grades they had been predicted.  For some, it seems, an unconditional offer may have become an excuse to take things a little less seriously, with no need to strive for the necessary A to C grade they should have been aiming for.

And while that may have meant an easier ride for the last few months of school, it could be setting them up for a fall when they do reach university.  A Levels are something of a practice run for the real deal of getting a degree, and getting into a laid-back mindset about exams could mean they go to university without the study skills they’ll need to succeed.

Go in with the wrong work ethic and you could quickly find you’re struggling in a more rigorous academic environment.  It’s also worth remembering that A-Level grades are often taken into account when it comes to applying for graduate level jobs, internships or workplace graduate schemes.  With so little to differentiate one applicant from another, many potential employers will look even further back than a university degree to help them decide.  Poor A-Level grades could still, therefore, be coming back to haunt students many years down the line.

Built-in inequality

Many higher education establishments pride themselves on being fair with students, treating them all as equals and not discriminating.  The rise in unconditional offers would seem to fly in the face of this, effectively creating a hierarchy between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ when it comes to getting in.

This creation of a two-tier system could be bad news for both students and universities alike, with some starting their university life having had a free ticket and an easy ride and others having had to fight fiercely to secure their first-choice place.  Unpopular as the view might be among A-Level students, university should be difficult to get into – universities need to take the best and most promising students regardless of background, and it’s unclear what criteria they work from when they make unconditional offers.  While it may not be apparent yet, the trend towards offering more unconditional places could fuel an undercurrent of resentment between those who were handed their place on a plate and those who had to work incredibly hard to get there.

Blessing or bribery?

Some might see the offer of an unconditional place as a blessing, while to others it will look like little more than old-fashioned bribery.

Some UK universities offered unconditional places only for students who firmly accepted them within a certain time frame.  Deciding which university to go to shouldn’t be rushed at any cost, particularly as the increase in tuition fees means there’s a lot more riding on a student’s choice than there was even a handful of years ago.

It can cost upwards of £9,000 a year to study at university and student debt is fast increasing.  Pressuring students to accept an offer and not giving them the time and space to explore all their options cannot be good, and some students will be tempted to simply take the offer on the table even if it’s not their desired course or institution.  That could lead to heartache down the line if they realize they have made a rushed decision they later regret, and they may end up crashing out with nothing to show either degree- or A-Level-wise.

It’s also not good news for universities.  UK universities have a strong global reputation for academic excellence and incredible research, attracting students from all over the world.  Making too many unconditional offers could backfire and undermine that strong academic reputation.

If they lure in students who then underachieve at A-Level, they could run the risk of the same students underachieving at university.  In order to balance things out, that might mean they end up lowering the bar on grades and awarding more undeserved firsts and 2:1s, just to make themselves appear more successful.  In the end all that does is reduce the quality of the work they do and lower academic standards overall.

Too many unconditional offers comes off as an easy get-out for universities desperate to fill places and ensure the income from tuition fees, and it’s a disservice to the universities themselves and the students who have worked so hard to get there.  Students would be better turning down an unconditional offer if they’ve been put under pressure to accept.  This is too big a decision to be left open to bribery, and in the end there will be no winners.


Lizzie Exton writes for Inspiring Interns, which specializes in sourcing candidates for internshipsTo browse our graduate jobs in London listings, visit our website.

This article was originally published in August 2018 . It was last updated in January 2020

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