How uni unconditional A-level offers undermine schools

Heads reveal how 'conditional unconditional' uni offers harm pupil motivation, standards and attendance

Fears have been raised that the new tougher GCSEs are leaving lower-ability students even further behind

The practice of offering universities offering pupils “conditional unconditional” offers is controversial. It encourages them to choose a university course as their first option in exchange for a guaranteed place, possibly limiting their choices or leading to underachievement in their exams.

In April, then education secretary Damian Hinds wrote to 23 universities asking them to stop using this kind of offer, which he likened to a form of “pressure selling”. However, the Department for Education has refused to name the three universities that failed to respond to his request.


Related: DfE will not name unis making 'strings attached' offers

Background: Hinds tells unis to stop 'unethical' strings-attached offers

Revealed: The universities that make ‘strings attached’ unconditional offers


Many headteachers condemn unconditional offers of any kind, as results from an Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) focus group of state school leaders, seen by Tes, has confirmed.

Headteachers reported that:

  • That students with unconditional offers lacked motivation. One said pupils who received unconditional offers underperformed, adding that “we also noticed dips in attendance, some major, and in many cases a large reduction in the standard of classwork, coursework and homework”.
  • At one school, 27 out of 73 A-level candidates already had university places before they sat an exam.
  • A head reported that 25-30 per cent of their UCAS cohort had received unconditional offers over the past three years, with numbers increasing year on year.
  • “I would say nearly every student had an email stating 'put us first and we will give you an unconditional offer’,” said one school leader.
  • Another said: “This is the usual model for how these offers work. Over 90 per cent of the unconditional offers are dependent upon students putting the university as first choice. However, this year there was a noticeable increase in the small number of offers where the students could put the university as the reserve choice and still keep this as an unconditional offer.”
  • Respondents said some students who received unconditional offers achieved lower A-level grades than their predicted outcomes. One reported that their statistics showed pupils with an unconditional offer achieved around half of one grade lower than their predicted grades per subject.
  • Two school leaders reported that students from disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to accept an unconditional offer.
  • However, one respondent said: “This is not necessarily our experience. It appears to be much more about the confidence of the student to take risks about backing themselves to achieve grades or not, rather than be linked to deprivation in our particular context.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, said: “Unconditional offers, and particularly so-called ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, are not in the best interests of students and we would once again urge universities to desist from using them in order to put bums on seats.

"This practice demotivates students to do well in their A levels and other important level 3 qualifications, leads to them under-performing, encourages them to choose university courses which may not be the best fit for them, and undermines the work of schools and colleges.

"We understand the pressure on universities to fill places but the use of unconditional offers on an industrial scale is causing serious problems.”

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