Universities are bribing students with unconditional offers

Female student sitting reading literature

August 2018

Each summer universities count down the days to the publication of A-level results. In 2018, nearly one in four of the students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland who applied to university had a guaranteed place through an unconditional offer. This isn’t something to be celebrated.

Ucas statistics for the 2018 cycle show the number of unconditional offers made to 18-year-olds in England, Northern Ireland and Wales rose by nearly a third and accounted for 7.1% of all offers. More than 42,000 of those offers were selected by students as their firm choice and a further 9,185 as insurance choices.

Prospectuses and websites commonly claim that they put students’ interests at the core of all they do. In my mind, making unconditional offers is the absolute antithesis of this.

First, they have the potential to kill academic endeavour and high achievement. With a place secured, some students will think they can take it easy because it no longer matters if they get an A or a C grade. Ucas research has found that those with unconditional offers are 23% more likely to fall short of their predicted grades than those with conditional offers. Any action by a university that leads to a prospective student’s underachievement sets completely the wrong ethos before higher education even begins.

You may ask whether this is such a big problem? As long as a student does enough to make it to university, do their grades really matter? But those who don’t engage fully with A-level study are less likely to have the skills to study at degree level. Added to this, some graduate employment schemes take A-level grades into account alongside degree results. By giving unconditional offers, students are being significantly disadvantaged with regard to future career opportunities. This might be far from students’ minds but securing graduate-level employment is at the heart of what a good university education is all about.

Second, unconditional offers create a two-tier system, with some students arriving at university with a free pass and others having had the bar set high. Entry to university must be a level playing field, with all applicants being treated equally and fairly. Students should have to work hard to get to university, displaying the potential on which their academic progress will depend.

With competition for applicants more intense than ever, some universities are using unconditional offers to secure students early in the application process. Some even make the offer dependent on a firm acceptance. This is tantamount to bribery.

What makes it even worse is that the “bribe” comes at a time when prospective students need time and space to make their final decision. Visiting university open days, making decisions, working hard and feeling a sense of achievement should be equal experiences for every applicant. Unconditional offers introduce a bias that at best isn’t needed and at worst is unfair.

Lecturer talking to a class of students
Student studying at computer

When I speak to the students at our open days, I make it clear that Loughborough won’t be the place for everyone. We want to recruit students who are prepared to work hard and be the very best they can be. They can only do that if they feel we are the right place for them and they are studying the right subject. No one wants to see students struggling to cope or dropping out because they were pressured to choose the wrong university or the wrong course.

My advice to students is to pick the institution that’s best for you. Don’t be tempted to accept, at any price, the easy option of an unconditional offer. Follow your instincts and your ambitions. Have confidence in your ability to achieve the grades you need to get where you want to be. Rise to the challenge and win your university place on merit – and not because a university is worried about filling places and offered you the soft option.

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