'Unconditional offers leave colleges open to criticism'

Colleges have been vocal in criticising unconditional offers - and need to take a stance themselves, says Stephen Exley

'Unconditional offers leave colleges open to criticism'

Unconditional offers from universities are “letting students down”. The “everyone else does it” approach “leads to a situation of perpetual underperformance”. The approach damages social mobility “by tempting cautious disadvantaged students to take up places at universities struggling to fill their seats”.

It’s fair to say that there have been plenty of figures from the FE sector who raised concerns about the explosion in the various types of unconditional offers in recent months. Chief among which is that they can lead to students’ performance dropping off at a crucial point in their education if they already have a guaranteed university place in the bag, affecting their grades and – potentially – their future career prospects. Colleges, which collectively educate 685,000 16- to 18-year-olds, often end up bearing the brunt of this.

The criticism has been widespread, with education secretary Gavin Williamson among those condemning the use of “conditional unconditional” offers, warning that they can limit disadvantaged teenagers from going to the "very best academic institutions" possible.

Background: Williamson backs ‘worrying’ unconditional offers review

More: Unconditional A level uni offers rise to 38% of pupils

Opinion: 'Unconditional offers enable perpetual underperformance'

Unconditional offers: questionable practice?

Data published by Ucas in December revealed that a record one in four university applicants received a "conditional unconditional" offer this year – and also that students were becoming less likely to accept them.

Which makes all the more surprising figures analysed by Tes which reveal that in the 2019-20 admissions cycle, 40 colleges made offers with some sort of unconditional component. 

Clear at the top of the table for using this controversial approach was Loughborough College, which in 2019 made 130 conditional unconditional offers, which made up 53 per cent of the overall number of offers. The college has since said it “shared the concerns” about the practice and, following a review of its policy, decided to stop making “conditional unconditional” offers from 2021.

Credit to Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes, who has spoken out about the “negative impact on student motivation and achievement” and pointed out that it can “put pressure on students to make quick decisions that won’t always lead to the best choice for them”.

To be fair, there are a range of circumstances which lead to the different types of unconditional offers being made in particular circumstances – such as colleges making offers to their own students to move into HE provision. But when so many colleges have criticised universities so strongly for the practice, seeing that a not inconsiderable number have actually themselves used them leaves the sector open to criticisms of double standards. Loughborough, the biggest offender, has made the decision to stop using conditional unconditional offers. Here’s hoping that others follow suit.

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen is TES' Further Education Editor. He has worked at TES since 2010, and was previously the education correspondent at the Cambridge News. He was the winner of the award for Outstanding National Education Journalism at the CIPR Education Journalism Awards in 2015 and 2013.

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