Much has been made of the case for and against students receiving unconditional offers for university places. The arguments are often complex, and competing considerations can include reputational, academic and fiscal factors. However, when addressing the recent huge rise in the number of unconditional offers, we need to look at one aspect above all else: the student.
As a sector, education isn’t always noted for its pace of change. But, according to Ucas, since 2014, the number of 18-year-olds receiving at least one unconditional offer has risen almost fivefold. Now, almost a quarter of these prospective higher education students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland can be assured of a place, irrespective of grades. It is a shift that has had dramatic and wide-ranging repercussions.
One of the most notable arguments against unconditional offers is that they allow students to “take their foot off the gas”. This is something our teaching staff have noticed from the moment such an offer has been received – and it's a cause of great frustration.
It’s not just anecdotal experience either. Recent evidence from the Office for Students shows that applicants, having accepted an unconditional offer, are more likely to underperform by two or more grades compared with those receiving one with conditions. Let’s be clear: this isn’t good for the university, the FE provider nor the student.
With about 20,000 students studying at Leeds City College, we’re one of the largest FE providers in the North, and we offer a huge variety of courses, including many HE courses. Our wider group, Luminate, includes a HE institution, Leeds College of Music. Overall, the group encompasses more than 30,000 students, from ages 11-84, which gives us a broad oversight both in terms of academic areas of expertise and connections with HE institutions.
'Driven by financial necessity?'
From speaking with those in the HE sector, many will tell you they don’t approve of, or like, the strategy of institutions handing out unconditional offers, but they are driven by financial necessity.
Universities are commercial entities and have an underlying need (and responsibility) to be well run and financially viable. But that can never be at the expense of the teaching experience. The “everyone else does it” approach simply doesn’t wash, and leads to a situation of perpetual underperformance.
In our view, the idea that unconditional offers can help to boost social mobility also doesn’t stack up. While the claim is that those from less-privileged backgrounds may benefit, in reality, unconditional offers are often made on a variety of factors, prominent among which are the highest attainers. This means that there is often no correlation with social mobility, and those who are from traditionally less well-off backgrounds can be marginalised further and receive a raw deal.
'Unacceptable knock-on effects'
Educational institutions are facing constant threats to financial stability, and it’s understandable that providers want to guarantee students on seats. But this mustn’t be done to the detriment of their integrity. It has unacceptable knock-on effects further down the line, both at FE level and secondary, but most importantly, for the individuals at the heart of the equation.
For the first time, Ucas last month revealed details of the numbers of unconditional offers made by each institution. It’s crucial we use that knowledge in a collaborative way that helps to improve the educational experience for young people. This isn’t, and shouldn’t be, about a carrot-and-stick approach.
More work needs to be done to create a fairer system, one that rewards effort and encourages aspiration. The only way that this can be achieved is by working together. We’re lucky enough to work with some incredible HE institutions, and by working collaboratively with students at the centre of our efforts, I’m confident we can find a way forward that protects educational institutions and promotes academic excellence.
Bill Jones is deputy CEO of Leeds City College