Competition for universities to attract strong candidates is fierce. They have revived the practice of offering unconditional offers to strong candidates.
Birmingham started this trend last year when it gave out around 1,000 unconditional offers across 12 courses, and for 2014 entry this has been extended to cover over 30 different subject areas. Queen Mary, Nottingham, Leicester and Sussex have joined Birmingham this year with 1,200 candidates (15% of the applicants) to the University of Sussex receiving unconditional offers. Jessie Sun, who applied to study Media and Communications at the University of Sussex, quotes their student newspaper saying “I was really delighted at the chance of an unconditional offer, but at the same time, it’s made it a lot harder for me to narrow down my choices… I’m going to have to go back to square one and look at all the pros and cons of all my choices”. Others admitted that the “clinching factor in choosing their firm choice was the unconditional offer.”
The Telegraph reports that one leading Russell Group university told them: “I am concerned at the attempt to downgrade the importance of A-levels. That is the effect that these changes will have. These universities are saying, ‘If you make us your firm choice we’ll make you an unconditional offer’. That’s not in the applicant’s best interest.”
Students who receive these offers say they “give a sense of security during a stressful part of the school year and provide an antidote to worries about having to go through clearing.”,The Guardian.
It gives these students a chance to sort out accommodation and finance before others who are waiting for A level results. Indeed it gives them a definite advantage over the rest of their cohort. Yet I am concerned that there will be those that relax and do not preform to the best of their ability. The sensible students will see the advantage in maintaining their good academic record yet there will be some that do not. They will have to deal with the problem of explaining to future employers they had the potential to do well but without the incentive of a place to win they did not perform to their full potential. It will be a measure of a student’s motivation. Last year in the trial at Birmingham University the director of admissions, Roderick Smith said. “Not only did we see an increased conversion rate from offer to acceptance, but we were also pleased to see that those who received an unconditional offer performed to their potential.” However, as these become more widely used I will reserve my judgement that all students will have the same maturity and foresight.
In my teaching life I have taught many students. Some of the most motivated and successful were not those that achieved best academically throughout their academic life but those that learnt to work hard for what they wanted. There are many reasons students do not achieve as well as others. Some mature at a later stage, others have to overcome the disadvantages that present themselves: bereavement; illness; lack of family support or maybe just the opportunities that many of us take for granted. Yet I have seen many strive to overcome them. Not to be labelled by an event but by their dreams. I fear that this gives them another hurdle to jump. These students will still work hard, look for every opportunity to shine and overcome a slow start. They will be determined to sit through the stress of an examination session and be strengthened by it. Yet, I ask myself is it fair to set up a system that relieves stress from some and increases it for others?
I do not believe that this development is necessarily the best for all students. Some will be drawn to particular universities and courses by unconditional offers and reduction in fees and this is a clever marketing strategy for excellent universities to attract the strongest candidates. However, it will be really important for students to choose the course because of its merit and suitability. Of one thing I am sure – it will change the face of higher education significantly in the near future. A levels may not remain the touchstone of success. With the possible demise of AS levels for all students will GCSE’s and school predictions really determine the future for our young people in this country?