Posted by on April 20, 2015 at 10:05 am

What is happening?

If you work with students applying to university you will have noticed the growing trend for universities to make unconditional offers. This started last year and seems to have spread like wild fire this year. It’s not a straightforward picture and can take different guises, but few of these offers are genuinely ‘unconditional’.

Some universities are offering unconditional places to those applicants with very high predicted grades in order to sway the ‘best and the brightest’ to choose them. Others are targeting particular schools and colleges, whilst some seem to be dishing out unconditional offers to anyone who has been predicted to meet the minimum entry requirement.

In most cases, students have to name the university as their firm choice on UCAS application forms to qualify for an unconditional offer.

Why is it happening?

Like most organisations, universities are facing ever increasing competition, not just from other universities but from a growing number of private ‘for profit’ Higher Education providers like BPP, RDI and the University of Law, not to mention many FE colleges which are setting up or increasing their own HE provision.

Couple that with the relaxation of student number controls for 2015 entry by the coalition Government and the difficult financial circumstances that some universities have found themselves in, and we seem to have a perfect storm, resulting in interesting tactics when it comes to persuading applicants to make them first choice.

Unintended consequences.

So what’s the problem? In my role, I speak to teachers and advisers daily and I’ve yet to find one that is happy with this situation.

Firstly, what if an applicant gets an unconditional offer from a university that wouldn’t have been their first choice? Do they disregard all the research they’ve done and what they found out at the Open Days they attended? It must be really tempting for many of them. How great to have that exam pressure lifted. But what if it really isn’t the right choice for them? Will we see an increase in dropout rates for these students once they start their degree?

Secondly, it seems that the inevitable has started to happen. I’m hearing reliable reports that certain groups of students are accepting these unconditional offers and taking their foot off the pedal in the run up to their final assignments and exams. The pressure is off and the motivation has gone. They might still have their university place, but underachievement at A Level or BTEC is problematic for all concerned.

Many employers look at the whole educational package when recruiting graduates and most graduate fast-track schemes will take level 3 qualifications into account. From a school or college perspective there is a very real risk that attainment levels will drop significantly, impacting on performance and league tables, not to mention making a mockery of everything that schools and colleges are trying to achieve post 16. Similarly, the average UCAS tariff points at entry will drop for those institutions accepting these students, with the inevitable impact on league tables, so it’s really not doing anybody any reputational favours.

So is it short term gain, but medium and long term pain?

Why isn’t the University of Huddersfield making all applicants an ‘unconditional’ offer?

Here at Huddersfield we expect students who join us to have demonstrated their commitment to their studies and future career – whether they are studying A Levels, BTECs or other qualifications. We also want all our students to be studying alongside others who have shown equal commitment, and inspire each other to do their very best, get the most out of their time at university and go on to great careers. This means that we still make conditional offers for the majority of our courses. We think this means that the students who achieve the necessary results to join us will strive to do their best, and will be properly equipped to study at university. For a very small number of courses, where students are interviewed or auditioned, we may make an unconditional offer if we are confident that the student is right for the course and will succeed.

Advice to applicants receiving unconditional offers:

• Don’t rush your decision or base it purely on the type of offer you receive.
• Remember, you are committed to your first choice university with the grades you get on results day. You will not be able to go through Adjustment.
• If you change your mind, once you get your results, you will have to ask to be released from your first choice and go through Clearing and risk not getting onto the course or into the university you want.
• Your A Level/BTEC results are still hugely important – for your future career prospects and for your degree.

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