When the recent news broke that unconditional undergraduate offers now account for 7.8% of all offers made to potential students, with 25% of students applying to university given at least one unconditional offer, up 2% since 2018, a chorus of disapproval rose from the sector, especially when some of these unconditional offers have been made under the condition that the applicant makes the university or institution their firm choice.
Many have said that unconditional offers act as a disincentive for students to achieve as high a grade as they can on their level three programme, as they are already assured a university place. This poorly prepares young people for both academia and employment particularly – as many graduate schemes take level three grades into account when screening applicants.
We are now seeing an exceptionally competitive graduate employment market; rapid changes in labour patterns and automation in the workplace. These shifts make it more important than ever to ensure that students make the right decision regarding their higher education. Ironically at the very time that students should be becoming more critical consumers of higher education, the rise in unconditional offers suggests that they may be encouraged to be less so.
A lack of inclination from students completing level three studies to ‘think again’ about their higher education choice due to an unconditional offer, can act to reaffirm the dominance of traditional education models, at the very time that the opportunities become more diverse through routes such as higher apprenticeships, Higher National Diplomas, fast track two-year courses and degree apprenticeship hybrids. A more traditional full-time three-year university experience simply does not suit many learners; either because it does not reflect their career ambitions, may not deliver the more career focused skill-set they require, or because it does not suit their lifestyle. The shepherding of school and college leavers into unconditional offers means that they may not be given sufficient opportunity to rethink their options and consider whether they are right for them. Some students aren't aware that these other routes could lead to a degree anyway.
The rise in unconditional offers is unsurprising; increases in tuition fees, the removal of student number caps and the drop in the number of school leavers going to university means that universities are being proactive in their recruitment strategies when seeking students. However, in the long-term shepherding students into traditional courses with the security of an unconditional offer may be neither in their best interests, nor the best interests of the UK economy, which needs cutting edge skills – many of which are offered outside of the traditional three year, on campus undergraduate system.
How then, can we meet this challenge and ensure that school and college leavers are not tempted onto courses that are not appropriate for them? Much of the answer to this will lie in the advice that schools and FE colleges provide to students. In a changing graduate market, it will be important to ensure that people have the skills they need to succeed in their chosen career. However, it will not always be the full time, three year, on-campus degrees, typically offered that provide students with these skills. For many, a course that mixes academic rigour and recognition, with career focused, employer led skill acquisition is needed. It is the responsibility of policy makers, and careers advisers in schools and colleges to ensure that learners have all the options available to them set out clearly to help them take the right decision for their career and future.
Rather than increasing unconditional offers, the sector collectively needs to increase students’ awareness of the range of options open to them and, where appropriate, encourage them to review their options.
According to UCAS, this year, almost two in five (38 per cent) of 18 year old applicants from England, Northern Ireland, and Wales received an offer for a place at university that could be considered unconditional. - https://www.ucas.com/corporate/news-and-key-documents/news/update-unconditional-offer-making-2019
Jane Baker is Director of Higher Education Qualifications at Pearson UK
Previously published in Times Higher Education, August 2018