Unconditional offers – can a balance be found?

The issue of universities offering unconditional offers is not going to go away anytime soon, especially in light of the latest research from UCAS which shows that some institutions are making up to 84 percent of their offers unconditional.

As part of this debate, the suggestion that unconditional offers universally ‘damage a student’s education’ is unhelpful. Students are individuals.

From a psychological perspective why wouldn’t a bright, hard-working, conscientious sixth former not want the certainty of a university place, including guaranteed accommodation, several months before they get their exam results, when there is the ever present fear of grade deflation and the potential prospect of clearing?

Certainly that is one argument for why our girls at The Abbey have so far embraced the present unconditional offer market. Parents have also greeted with relief the consequential reduction in pressure at what is inevitably an extremely stressful period in their children’s lives.

From the universities’ point of view this is a smart business strategy because it they can secure student numbers early in the application process and shore up their financial planning. You also avoid the inevitable cost and ambiguity of the UCAS clearing process. On top of that there is the unpredictability that Brexit brings, along with rumours of a reduction in university fees and a demographic dip in undergraduate student numbers.

However, as we all know, life is not that simple. Whilst at my school we have not seen any change in our students’ academic ambition nor their attitudes to high achievement, there is little doubt that this remains a concern of many Heads.

There is surely a balance to be found between wanting to attract applicants to your university and behaving in a responsible fashion by giving due regard to whether they will thrive and embrace everything that your university experience offers? It would be a worrying prospect if universities only focussed on the bottom line.

The bigger question surely though, is what effect this mixed-message approach is having on students? Firstly, there is the issue of pressured decision making; is it morally right to push students to make a quick decision when in the past they have researched their options in depth and made a balanced and informed judgment about this momentous next stage of their lives? Also is it fair that where two students have near identical profiles, one is made an unconditional offer whilst the other is not? Furthermore the term ‘unconditional’ is misleading in itself when, in fact, these offers do have certain conditions attached, not least making that university the student’s first choice.

The unconditional offer is not new; it has existed in Scotland for many years. Maybe what universities actually need to do is something far more personalised which identifies talent rather than the present ad hoc system. I, for one, cannot see the higher education landscape becoming anything other than more brutal and that is one reason why we must continue to understand and respond to this type of fiscally-driven approach and support our students in their decision-making process.

The young people that are at the heart of this debate deserve something better and I believe the university that achieves this in its offer process will reap the rewards.

Rachel Dent is the Head of The Abbey School, Reading, Berkshire