Picture this: you work incredibly hard for your first year and get your AS results.  You begin the long-winded process of applying to universities through the UCAS system and begin the long hard slog through your A2s… Eventually, your UCAS is submitted and you begin that long wait.  Then, joy – you get that lovely email from UCAS saying that something has changed on your account.  And so you log on, curious to see what’s happened.  The result will determine a great deal of things for you – all will eventually shape your choice of university.

All you have to do is fulfil the requirements of the offer if you got one.  Simple enough, right?

Interestingly, not always the case.

Of course, if you’ve already fulfilled the requirements of entry to a particular programme, you might get an unconditional offer from a university.  Basically, if you accept it, you’ll be off there come September.  Exciting stuff, but not really a surprise if you’ve already ticked every box that you need to beforehand.  This is often the case with students who have deferred entry, but curiously, the unconditional offer is seeing a rather remarkable rise elsewhere.

I am, strangely, talking about among students who haven’t yet finished their exams, let alone received any results.  Yes, it would seem that several universities out there are willing to give students unconditional offers to entry onto degree programmes without any guarantees of them hitting the grades for entry.  It’s rather striking, to say the least.

The idea behind this is to encourage the most academic of students to apply to a specific institution.  The rough process for this goes something like this:

  • A student who is on for ‘top’ grades makes an application to a university with a scheme for unconditional offers.
  • The application is then assessed and the predicted grades are looked at.  Your academics are rigorously studied and, if successful, you’ll be given an offer just like any other student – or so it would appear.
  • If you accept their offer and make it you Firm Choice, the university will then adjust their offer to make it unconditional.

That’s right, you can walk into your final A Level exams without a care in the world.  Why? Because you got an unconditional offer before you actually even got your exam timetable.

It’s an interesting idea to encourage the brightest and the best to apply to a particular university, for sure.  For many, AS results give them a great idea as to what they can expect for A2 – teachers are often conservative in their predictions, from experience, generally AS results are a good guide.

If you’ve come out of your AS Levels with AAA and look set to keep that up throughout Year 13, then it seems to make sense to make that offer.  After all, the odds are stacked quite nicely in your favour – and the university’s too.

However, unconditional offers before you’ve sat your exams are potentially rather risky for institutions and schools alike…

  1. The obvious issue is that once an offer has been made and it’s been accepted, it is in effect contractual – there’s no turning back.  A university could give an unconditional offer out to a student who should match the entry criteria, only for them to miss it come exam day.  And don’t think that getting offers means a dead-certain place come September/October – many students do go through clearing.  By that logic, there are students out there missing their entry requirements.
    So a student who was given an unconditional offer on the basis they accepted a AAA offer somehow misses their targets and gets BBB – I mean, not the end of the world – and still gets that space ahead of a student who didn’t get an offer because they were ‘only’ predicted ABB?  Madness.
  2. Suddenly, teachers in Sixth Forms could well find themselves under increasing pressure to predict the top grades for students.  Doesn’t matter what they get in the real thing, since the offer could well be unconditional… so why not give them that chance of a free pass into uni?  I can imagine the odd pushy parent trying to use Parent’s Evening as an attempt at lobbying for over-inflated predictions – all simply because it could get their child an unconditional offer.  Imagine the surprise for schools when the ‘best’ kids seem to fall below their targets.
  3. It’s no secret that universities play a game of odds and probabilities when it comes to making offers.  A half-empty campus is not going to look good in the press, so universities deliberately give out more offers than they can actually take on – all working on the basis at least someone isn’t going to be getting their Fresher’s Week pack come September.  If they’re giving out unconditional offers for firm choices, that guarantees some students a spot immediately.  I can hear you wondering about what happens when a university oversubscribes…
    Well, in 2011 the University of Lincoln – my uni, nonetheless – managed to over-enrol to the point where temporary accommodation (read: portakabins) had to be erected in order to house the excess students until a suitable alternative could be found.  A rather embarrassing amount of media attention followed, leaving many admissions tutors rather red-faced.  Aside from the potential embarrassment, universities can actually be fined by authorities for admitting too many.  (Well, at least it stops institutions turning students into too much of a cash cow…)
  4. One of the big issues that came up from this news was that many were concerned that students wouldn’t take their exams seriously if they held an unconditional offer – that there was no point and whatever they did, they would always get a space.  Indeed, it could actually make you entire Year 13 irrelevant in such a case – I had already accepted my offer for Lincoln in the November as I’d got my offers all through by October.  Imagine if that was unconditional – I could happily sit my Christmas and Summer modules without actually caring about what I got in them.  After all, I’m tied into that space already, so why bother?  Pressure free.

The issue there is that, potentially, the results from at least half of the A2 modules might not be so important to students and so are devalued.  Whilst a dip in grades might stop the ‘exams are getting easier’ bandwagon from being quite so loud, it’s perhaps nothing to do with the actual exam content.

15% of Sussex offers are given an unconditional rating as part of their scheme.  It does seem a little worrying.  I do wonder why some institutions are doing this – are they trying to recapture the good old days of maximum enrolment?  Are they looking for more profit?  Both are plausible explanations and both are troubling.

I think there needs to be a little control over the issuing of pre-exam unconditional offers.  It does seem somewhat dangerous and could leave people unfairly missing out.




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Joseph is a French and Spanish to English translator, language enthusiast, and blogger.