'What our students need is more unconditional offers from universities, not fewer'

The increase in unconditional offers isn't something to boo at, writes Bernard Trafford. It shows a heroic move from universities to give a few candidates the break they need

Bernard Trafford

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Christmas is over, but the pantomime season continues for several weeks yet. In education, a few stage villains (boo! hiss!) have emerged even since New Year.

First, there’s the appointment to the Office for Students of Toby Young, controversial not only on account of his political views but also because the Office of Students board boasts just two people actively involved in education, a single student and the principal of a drama school.

Other sinister figures creeping out of the stage-contrived smoke include the prime minister and – it’s suggested – the ghost of Michael Gove, amid rumours of the imminent sacking of Justine Greening, the only education secretary in recent years whom teachers have felt able to work with.

Unconditional offers furore

A very different villain infuriated regulators and academics alike just before the festive season: the universities. Forget their hikes in fees, vice-chancellors’ excessive salaries and the failure of top institutions to recruit students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This scandal arises from the unconditional offers they’re making, where candidates are offered a place regardless of the A-level results they gain in the summer: The Times cites a 40 percent rise.

Isn’t this a good thing, though?  Surely taking the pressure off students by not requiring them to gain stratospheric grades is progress?

Oh no, it isn’t! Universities are accused of a cash-grab, nailing down applicants (worth £9,000 each) ahead of the competition. Moreover, Ucas reckons that, with no grade target, students exert less effort, underperform at A level and are unattractive to future employers.

So is it a disgrace? Oh no, it isn’t – not in my book. This furore is misdirected.

The entire educational world appears to agree that students’ mental health is paramount and that exam pressures contribute significantly to mental problems. Yet responsible bodies are now deploring universities reducing that pressure through unconditional offers.

Escalating requirements

The subtext of this criticism is that we should instead keep pushing students to get top grades. Yet for years, universities have been escalating their grade requirements: from several top universities, candidates will soon be holding offers requiring A*AA or even A*A*A.

By way of research, I contacted a former student of mine who, I remembered, was given an unconditional offer from Cambridge. By coincidence, Times columnist Sathnam Sanghera replied to say he had just written about it for the paper’s Notebook opinion section:

“Thinking about my student days, I don’t think I have ever been as stressed out as I was during my A-levels. My sister was having a breakdown. My father wasn’t well either. My mum was struggling to keep things together and, as the first member of my family to aim for university, I was pole-axed by confusion and guilt.

“Thank God, then, for an unconditional offer from Cambridge University, which meant that I only had to get two E grades to take up my place rather than three A grades, and which eased the pressure when I most needed a break.”


Beyond doubt a potential three-A candidate, Sathnam “underachieved” that summer, gaining ACC. In his article, he was too modest to mention both his first-class degree and his subsequent accolade of Young Journalist of the Year. Two decades on, he’s a highly-regarded journalist and novelist: his autobiographical memoir, The Boy with the Topknot, was screened by the BBC in November. Not a failure in the long run, then...

Flawed application process

The university application process is deeply flawed in any case: but current critics unconditional offers appear to demand that, if it’s miserable for some, it must be miserable for all. Equity, social mobility and reduced pressure on candidates will only be achieved through post-qualification application (PQA – candidates applying to university after they have A-level results). But that change would cost both government and universities: I see no political will or courage to make it.

Boo and hiss all you like – but for me, just this once, the universities aren’t the villains. They’re the heroes, in sequins and boots, giving a few candidates, just a few, a break.

Oh yes, they are! 

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist and musician. He is a former headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and past chair of HMC. He will take up the role of interim head of the Purcell School in Hertfordshire in January. He tweets @bernardtrafford

To read more of his columns, view his back catalogue

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Bernard Trafford

Bernard Trafford

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher

Find me on Twitter @bernardtrafford

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