As we enter the new application cycle, a fresh cohort of prospective students will again be confronted with unconditional offers (not based on their final exam results) or other incentivised offers to persuade them to choose a particular university. As this practice becomes increasingly common, key figures in education are questioning whether it really benefits students – or the university sector as a whole.
In their recent report on the subject, UCAS stated that the number of unconditional offers made to 18 year old students from England, Northern Ireland, and Wales has risen significantly over the past five years – from 2,985 in 2013, to 67,915 in 2018. In the most recent application cycle, 22.9% of this group of students received at least one unconditional offer, an increase of 29% on the previous year.
The Government has been critical of this sharp rise in unconditional offers. Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah, has criticised the practice as “completely irresponsible” stating that it “undermines the credibility of the university system”. Gyimah says that “unconditional offers risk distracting students from the final year of their schooling, and swaying their decisions does them a disservice – universities must act in the interest of students, not in filling spaces.” His comments have been echoed by Robert Halfon, Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, who claims that the practice is putting “funding” before “standards”. Gyimah has promised to closely monitor the number of unconditional offers being issued and has empowered the Office for Students to take appropriate action if necessary.
Head of Student Recruitment, Simon Jenkins, said: “At Edge Hill, we believe that going to university is a rewarding, life-changing decision and that choosing the right university is vital. Students should select where they are going to spend the next three years on the basis of which university and course is right for them, rather than which university is prepared to make an offer unconditional if a student chooses them.”
Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, highlights the long-term dangers of unconditional offers saying that they “can lead to students making less effort in their A-Levels because their place is assured. That can then hamper their job prospects later down the line if potential employers take into account their A-Level grades.”
Edge Hill has always had a policy of not making unconditional offers to applicants who are sitting their A-Level, BTEC or equivalent qualifications for this reason.
“We are very conscious that exam grades are not just about getting into university,” said Simon. “We set what we believe are stretching entry requirements and we encourage applicants to work hard to achieve the very best grades that they can.
“We have strong academic standards as a university and we want students who are passionate about their subject and who want to be part of an exciting and dynamic community of lecturers and like-minded students. We also want students who are committed to their own success. For that reason, we will not compromise our standards by making unconditional offers to applicants in order to encourage them to come to us regardless of the grades they achieve.”
Third year Geography student Max Beaton turned down two unconditional offers from other universities to take up a place at Edge Hill. He said: “I chose Edge Hill as my firm choice as I could see myself studying and living here. The unconditional offers didn’t really sway my choice – visiting Edge Hill on open days and applicant days definitely sold the University to me and allowed me to talk to students and staff and get a real feel for the place.
“I do think I made the right choice. Being a student here and being a member of the Edge Hill community actually exceeded my initial expectations.”
Max advises students starting off on their application journey to choose the university that is best for them.
He added: “Unconditional offers do look great and very encouraging and the university might really want you to choose them, but if it’s not the right choice for you, no matter what they are offering, you have to do what is best for you.”
Kazia Cannon, a 3rd year Drama student, also received two unconditional offers before deciding on Edge Hill. She said: “Edge Hill was just a lot more suited to my needs both academically and in terms of student support.
“When you’re visiting universities, you have to think ‘is this somewhere I can imagine myself in three years?’ That’s what I did every time I went to an open day and that’s how I made my decision in the end.”