Rising unconditional offers - the double edged sword
"Mum, Dad, I've received a fantastic offer from Porthampton University. It's unconditional, I get my first choice accommodation, a free laptop and I get a £5,000 scholarship." "That's wonderful, you should be very proud of yourself. You've done ever so well and we couldn't be happier for you." Mum quietly whispers to Dad "that'll save us a few quid too!"
Of course, this is great news and the result of some excellent GCSE results and an outstanding UCAS personal statement, highlighting just how passionate "Alex" is about Physics, as well as achievements in hockey, debating and in the CCF. So, it is absolutely well deserved; nearly seven years of hard work and sacrifice look like they've paid off. Furthermore, it allows Alex to focus on revision without the angst of slipping a grade and losing the place at Porthampton. This will give peace of mind and provide one less thing to worry about at this crucial, formative time. After all, it's stressful enough without worrying about where one will be living, studying and enjoying the next stage of a thus far distinguished academic career. Mum and Dad can also plan their visits knowing exactly where Alex will be and that they needn't worry about not securing campus accommodation for the first year away from home. Phew, what a great relief!
However, the proliferation of unconditional offers is also very worrying, on a number of fronts. For Alex, is it the right decision? Although Porthampton was in Alex's top five destinations, will it ultimately become the confirmed firm choice (normally a condition is placed on the offer by the university) for the 'wrong' reasons? Will Alex's parents pile the pressure on due to the lucrative scholarship on the table, let alone the important 'scholarly tag' which can be added to the CV? Maybe more worrying for some individuals - will Alex and other recipients relax and underperform due to not needing to meet the standard offers, which happens to be A*, A, A in Alex's case? My concern is that this relatively new phenomenon is undermining our A Level system. Yes, Oxford and Cambridge were once known for their 2 E offers, but this was due to a reliance on bespoke and challenging entrance examinations and these offers were phased out quite some time ago. There is also a danger of the brightest pupils going to the lowest offer bidder (and the highest financially) when the fit between individual and institution may not be the best. Is this the best use of relatively scarce university funds? Sixth form pupils may be choosing universities which are in the habit of making unconditional offers at the expense of other criteria, such as undergraduate satisfaction and employability. Where complacency does set in and pupils underachieve in their A Levels, this is something that could have career limiting consequences, as employers increasingly look to public examination results (GCSE and A Level) to differentiate between higher numbers of job applicants with upper second class and first class honours degrees.
The number of unconditional offers rose from 12,100 in 2014 to 23,400 in 2015 and one in twelve applicants now receives at least one unconditional offer. If pupils in receipt of these do sit back and relax, then they may ultimately lack the independence, work ethic and research skills required by universities, and things get more difficult for schools too, particularly when a class contains pupils with and without unconditional offers. When resources are in short supply and class sizes large, hard working but pressurised teachers may inevitably turn their attention to those still requiring the higher grades.
I worry that the number of unconditional offers will only increase over time and it is incumbent on teachers and parents to work together to encourage pupils to select universities for the 'right' reasons and to make sure that pupils are aware of the associated dangers of such tempting offers. Having said that, with the cost of a university education as it currently stands, and set to increase even further, the financial incentives on offer can make those universities the right one(s) for some. However, at the end of the day it's the pupils themselves who must take the decision and then stay on the proverbial gas. I hope Alex chooses well.