Just before I started university I wrote a precocious article for Guardian Students defending the increase in unconditional offers, from the perspective of a student who had very happily received one. I lauded the way they released some of the stress surrounding A Level revision and exams, as well as the extra time they allowed for sorting out that big move away from home. But four years later, having just graduated from my degree, I’m less sure that unconditional offers benefit students as much as they do universities.
Sure, the immediate benefit to individual students is undeniable. I never had quite the same sense of panic as my friends when opening my envelope on results day, and I got my first choice of university accommodation because I could apply so early. I also knew that even if I made a silly mistake in one of my exams it wasn’t going to completely mess up my future plans. But for the education system more broadly, unconditional offers exemplify the trend of universities doing anything possible to push up student numbers, a tendency seen since the cap on student numbers was lifted in 2012. Many universities do defend the offers with reasoning that is admirable, if we believe it. Professor Graham Galbraith, vice-chancellor of the University of Portsmouth, has said that the rise in youth mental health problems ‘as well as a substantial rise in ‘perfectionism’, the combination of excessively high personal standards and overly harsh self-criticism’ means that unconditional offers provide a sense of security that can be important. I truly hope that this is something university management are considering, but I can’t help thinking - cynical as my twenty two years may have made me – that the £9,250 cheque hanging round each student’s neck might have something to do with the offers too. If institutions cared about student mental health they’d be pushing more far wider reform of the education system, and funding those oversubscribed student mental health services too. Unconditional offers also give universities more certainty about the number of students they’ll be receiving and allow them to attract high-performing students who might otherwise have studied elsewhere.
In 2018, 7.1% of all university offers made in England were unconditional and this year 22.9% of all eighteen year old applicants received at least one unconditional offer. UCAS has said it will be releasing more detailed research on the impact of this later in the year. Kirsti Lord, head of the Association of Colleges, has suggested that a small number of students receiving unconditional offers even drop out of college or sixth form before getting their A Levels because their place at university is already sorted. Even the Conservative Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah, has criticised the increase in unconditional offers – and it was the Conservatives that lifted the cap on student numbers. Bizarrely, I agree with his analysis of the trend; Gyimah has said the offers show universities want to get ‘bums on seats’ more than they care about the ‘long term interests of students’. The wider proliferation of unconditional offers suggests that for many universities the quantity of students is more important than the quality of their university experience.
Admittedly Gyimah and I might have a slightly different idea about just how unconditional offers are detrimental. I hope he’d agree that larger student numbers aren’t always accompanied by an adequate growth in university facilities. The further I got through my degree - and thus the larger my university became - the harder it became to get a seat in the library and the more packed the bus to campus became, whilst the wait for food at lunch time became a trial worthy of the Ancient Olympiad. Most importantly, when students become numbers or monetary values its hard for university to nurture and challenge us as it should. As universities veer more and more towards becoming degree factories, any step which pushes them further in that direction should be avoided. Unconditional offers can be a fantastic surprise when you’re eighteen - but it we want a higher education system that benefits students, and society, in the long run, I no longer agree that the short term individual benefits are worth it.