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We must keep the growth of unconditional university offers in check

We must keep the growth of unconditional university offers in check
4 min read

All universities should be able to offer unconditional offers, but at the same time in doing so they should exercise a duty of care to the interests of the prospective student, writes Matt Warman


For generations of schoolchildren, an unconditional university offer has been a distant dream. Where such offers were made – usually in practice two Es – they were often from Oxbridge to pupils who were considered almost certain to get straight As anyway.

Today, the reality has changed, and that’s why I’ve secured a Westminster Hall debate on unconditional offers on Wednesday. UCAS reported that 3,000 such offers were made to students in 2013, and now it is 50,000 in 2017 - the Department for Education, following the Education Select Committee, is right to look at the overall picture.

This growth comes not from universities that dominate the top of the league tables, but from elsewhere. Schools have raised concerns about students across the spectrum of abilities not performing to their full potential in exams, safe in the knowledge that they have already secured a place at university regardless of their grades. While this can be a welcome safety net for some students, we must balance it with the impact it can have on schools and how it affects their exam results, for which they are held accountable and against which they have their performance measured.

This is not a new problem but it is now one that is spread wider. 

Anecdotal evidence has also been raised in my constituency of students giving up college courses after receiving an unconditional offer, which may result in them struggling in their university studies if they have missed fundamental information taught at school. If we let this go unchecked, we are letting our young people down at a time we should be supporting them in preparing for their next step in education. All universities should be able to offer unconditional offers, but at the same time in doing so they should exercise a duty of care to the interests of the prospective student. 

I look forward to hearing the minister’s view on Wednesday in what is a complex matter.

Some universities, for instance, have been reportedly inducing students to come with unconditional offers, so long as they are ranked as the student’s first choice. In the competitive landscape of a large number of universities, such a tactic could be seen as potentially damaging to students in a world where other incentives might more usually include vouchers or computers. The risk is that a student might end up with a degree from one university when they might have got into a better one, and worse results in their exams because they didn’t need good grades to get there. It’s a vicious circle if it goes wrong, but it is not about promoting academic courses over any others. 

In my own constituency, Boston Grammar School (BGS) already has 23 students with an unconditional offer from at least one university. This is more than a third of the students who have applied to universities for admission through UCAS. If there is a demotivational effect, that risks reflecting badly on schools in league tables, with all the various consequences that can bring.

The headmaster of BGS, John McHenry, tells me that the school has even seen comments suggesting that universities would "appreciate" it if students completed their studies. “In other words,” he says, “It actually won't make any difference at all if they don't finish their A Level courses. It’s very difficult to understand how it is possible for universities to permit students onto degree courses without passing examinations when schools have strict admission criteria relating to A Level courses. How would a ‘free for all’ at A Level impact on GCSE results nationally?” 

The risks of the wrong unconditional offers system are obvious: universities struggle to attract the best students and end up with those who have lower exam results and struggle further; that in turn holds those children back as adults; and schools too are punished for worsening results.

Universities are rightly independent of government, but they are also regulated and subsidised by taxpayers: in this as in other areas, a totally free market may not always serve the wider interest.

 

Matt Warman is Conservative MP for Boston and Skegness. His Westminster Hall debate will take place on Wednesday 28 March

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