The government is to review the cost of higher education (HE), with a particular focus on making sure that poorer students get an equal chance. The prime minister is also worried about market failure, with universities offering almost no competition on price. But HE is embracing competition in other ways, looking to make applicants an offer they can’t refuse.
A growing number of offers are being made unconditional on any particular A-level outcome, rising from 3,000 in 2013 to around 51,600 last year. Ucas and Ofqual are worried, and so, belatedly, is the House of Commons Select Committee. Opinions have divided, but there has been little criticism of the system that depends on pre-A-level offers and an opportunity to make the system fairer might once again be missed.
For universities facing a more competitive market – and where fee discounts are not an attractive option – offers become an effective means of securing applicants’ loyalty and the promise of their money, ahead of results day. Most unconditional offers are made lower down the league table, with a small but growing number of Russell Group universities getting down and dirty, too.
It is very important to distinguish between unconditional offers per se and targeted, contextual offers. Contextual offers seek, whatever precise form they take, to level the playing field and take account of home and school circumstances.
Concern about unconditional offers used as a marketing hook focuses on the demotivating effect of being told that nothing you do – or don’t do – in the next two terms makes any difference. More sanguine responses revolve around the reduction of stress and the opportunity to do some real study rather than repetitive test prep in Year 13.
Unconditional offers will help
But little has been said about the inherent opacity and unfairness of a system built on offers being made ahead of exam results. It is a historical accident, not a design. Changing it would make for a more transparent system and allow better-informed choices. Applicants would hold all their offers in hand once exam results were in.
It would make the system fairer, not just more transparent. Some bright students in struggling schools tend to be burdened by low-ball predicted grades. If they go on to perform better than expected in the A-level exams, it might be too late to fully research new options. Being able to "trade up" in clearing helps a bit, but there must be a disinclination to reject the bird in the hand. The current system favours students in well-resourced schools where early advice is plentiful and aspirations high.
More than 10 years ago, Stephen Schwartz published his report advocating post-qualification applications, which could be achieved by bringing A-level exams forward by a few months and postponing the start of university terms. This was opposed by universities on the grounds that it put UK term dates out of synch with those in HE around the world.
Our perverse system of second-guessing grades and making offers well before the exams creates uncertainty and unfairness in equal measure.
Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1