The Telegraph, 28/12/14, Universities such as Lancaster and Birmingham are making record numbers of "unconditional offers" – places awarded irrespective of final A-level grades – in 2015
Leading universities have been accused of undermining A-levels by accepting students before they sit their final exams in a “desperate” rush to fill places.
Research by the Telegraph shows universities are preparing to make increasing numbers of “unconditional offers” to sixth-formers next year.
Top research institutions including Birmingham, Lancaster, Nottingham, Leicester, Sussex and Queen Mary, University of London, will admit students en masse in some subjects without waiting for results in August.
Numbers are expected to significantly exceed the 12,000 unconditional offers made across the UK this year, with one university alone saying it will make 10,000 in 2015.
The move coincides with a government decision to abolish all restrictions on student recruitment in England for the first time in 2015 – creating a free market in undergraduate admissions.
It has led to intense competition between universities to sign up the most talented sixth-formers before they are attracted to opposing institutions.
In most cases, admissions tutors will make places available to candidates based on past performance in GCSEs and their predicted A-level grades, meaning students will win places even if they go on to fail their summer exams.
Universities insist the move is intended to reward students with potential while taking the pressure off teenagers in the final year of the sixth-form.
But there are fears that it will lead to a dramatic dip in performance in the last few months of school as students effectively “give up” on their A-levels.
A recent study by admissions experts warned that the system may provoke an “environment of reduced effort” where students “might stop trying hard”.
It was also claimed it could lead to "loss of credibility" at top universities and the sense that academics are "desperate to fill places".
One student told researchers: “If I was given an unconditional offer I wouldn’t bother working for my A-levels”.
According to UCAS, just over 20 universities made a record 12,000 unconditional offers between them to students starting courses this autumn. It represented a dramatic four-fold rise in just 12 months.
In 2012, Birmingham became the first institution to use the practice in a coordinated way by making 1,000 offers across 12 courses. This year, unconditional offers will be made to some 3,000 students – one-in-10 of the university’s total – in more than 50 separate subjects.
This includes chemistry, economics, English, geography, history, maths, modern languages and sociology.
For the first time this year, Lancaster has introduced a co-ordinated unconditional offer scheme, promising talented students places on 18 courses. It followed a trial in two departments last year.
Other institutions adopting unconditional offers in a systematic way in 2015 include two Russell Group universities – Nottingham and Queen Mary – along with Aston, Leicester, Sussex, Leeds Beckett and Birmingham City.
Most students have to make universities their “firm choice” on UCAS application forms as a condition of accepting an offer – effectively tying them into a place up to six months before courses start.
Aston said it was piloting an unconditional offer scheme “to reward academic excellence based on past performance and predicted grades” in one or two subjects in 2015.
Leicester said its unconditional offer programme was “not a short-cut and does not mean you can sit back and ignore your A-levels”, adding: “We will only make unconditional offers to students who we are absolutely certain will work hard and achieve excellent grades.”
Sussex said it offered unconditional places in all subjects other than medicine but insisted only the brightest 10 per cent of applicants were chosen based on previous GCSE results and AS-levels.
The move towards unconditional offers has been made as the government abolishes all controls on student recruitment for English universities in 2015.
It has already led to a more intense competition between institutions, with universities offering scholarships worth up to £10,000 and lucrative inducements such as free iPads, sports club membership and cheap accommodation to attract applicants.
But the unconditional offer system has been criticised by academics.
A report from Supporting Professionalism in Admissions – a university advisory group – suggested the system could have benefits, including acting as a way to increase student numbers and taking the pressure off sixth-formers as they approach their exams.
But it also listed a series of “threats” posed by the system. This included “perceived loss of credibility and face” and the possibility that universities’ “league table position may suffer if grades lower”.
It also said it may encourage an “environment of reduced effort” in the sixth-form.
Around 75 per cent of students and teachers responding to a SPA survey admitted the system meant sixth-formers “might stop trying hard” in the final year. Almost four-in-10 said universities making large numbers of unconditional offers were “desperate to fill places”.
One teacher told researchers: “I have seen students drop out of our programme once an unconditional offer has been received as they feel that it is pointless carrying on; they have nothing to gain.”
But another said: “It would take the pressure off students during their A-level year, which might mean they’d perform better anyway.”
Prof Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: “There is a real danger that this will lead to the final year being wasted. If final results no longer carry the weight you thought they would it is inevitable that many students are going to coast.”
But David Willetts, the former Universities Minister, and architect of the new admissions rules, said: “It all makes for a more competitive system and it’s to be welcomed. Students have much more choice than they had the in the past.”
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