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The Difference Between Unconditional and Inconsequential

Posted by Kristina Murkett in

Would being given an unconditional university offer have affected your A-Level work ethic? Would you have seen it as an opportunity to sit back and coast, or would you have welcomed the chance to secure your place 6 months before you start, rather than a matter of weeks?

Unconditional offers - that is, places awarded irrespective of A-level grades - are no longer anomalies, reserved for 'gap yah students' and exceptional candidates. Top universities such as Birmingham and Nottingham are offering record numbers of unconditional places, and many other institutions have plans to follow suit.

Numbers this year are expected to significantly exceed the 12,000 unconditional offers made across the UK in 2014, with one university alone saying it will make 10,000 in 2015. Interestingly, this move coincides with a government decision to abolish all restrictions on student recruitment in England - effectively creating a free market in undergraduate admissions. This may cause universities to rush to fill places in an ever competitive, 'free-for-all' environment, and in doing so, universities - as well as A-levels - risk losing credibility.

However, the trend seems to be exponential, and somewhat unstoppable - according to UCAS, just over 20 universities made a record 12,000 unconditional offers between them in Autumn 2014 - a dramatic four-fold rise in just 12 months. In 2012, Birmingham made 1,000 offers across 12 courses; this year, it will make 3000 unconditional offers (one in ten of the university's total) in more than 50 subjects. Other institutions such as Aston, Leicester, and Sussex plan to adopt a similarly systematic unconditional offer system, based on past performance in GCSEs and predicted grades.

Yet there are serious fears that this will lead to a dramatic dip in A-level performance: Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, argued that "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." Universities such as Leicester insist that there unconditional offer programme will not be a "short-cut" and that they will only be given to "students who they are absolutely certain will work hard and achieve excellent grades," but on paper can you really tell between a student who is intrinsically motivated, and one who works because they know they have to?

Furthermore, at what point though does competition force out credibility? The rising number of instances of universities offering £10,000 scholarships, or lucrative inducements such as free iPads, sports club membership and cheap luxury accommodation is quickly blurring the line between attraction and absurdity; and persuasion and pretension. Is it perhaps not simply a question of students not trying hard enough, but universities trying too hard.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Creative Commons.