A life in higher education: unconditionally yours?

Hilary Moriarty reflects on the rampant growth of unconditional offers for university places

wonder if it’s too soon to write the eulogy for conditional offers of a place at university? An unconditional offer of a place at a university of your choice reminds me of Japanese knotweed – once a rare thing – now rampant in the land and popping up every time you read an article about university entrance. Commonplace, in fact.

I understand that most gardeners would say the knotweed is a bad thing in the garden, an alien beast, and its invasion marks a radical change in the garden. I wonder if that will happen to the universities which have jumped aboard the unconditional-offer gravy train? Will they find themselves with large numbers of students with mediocre grades taking a very relaxed approach to their studies because it was easy enough to get in, and now you’re there, it’s no sweat doing well – look how many students get first-class degrees now, way more than 20 years ago, chill man, let’s start a rock band, ’cos you gotta find something to fill the days, actually you could get a few shifts in a fast food outlet…

Meanwhile, back in the school garden, to hold the metaphor a little longer, no doubt some seriously upright students are relaxing into cheerful fat green knotweedy slumps because they no longer need to bother. You want to go to a good university? I’m going! It’s in the bag. Better than that – “They are so keen to have me, they don’t even want me to get a top grade! I can doss about for the rest of the year! I would be a fool not to!”

Unnecessary effort? Why would you? Why would anyone bother? It’s like being given a free air ticket to New York. Who in their right mind would scrape and save and work like the devil to get the money to pay for it, thrusting your hard-earned notes into the airline’s dismissive hands, when the airline has said, “It’s free! Get outta here with that cash – what do you not understand about the concept of free?”

You can see the logic of unconditional offering from the university’s point of view. Presumably such offers are only made to the kind of candidate who already has a stash of top grades at GCSE, suggesting similarly high grades to come in the A-level exams, and a CV which describes the kind of student they want, probably contributing to his/her school in all manner of ways in addition to simple academics: choir, team, prefect, all round very good egg.

A university can be forgiven for thinking here is exactly the kind of student they want, who is going to get top grades anyway, so how to ensure they hook this fine fish? Give him/her an offer he/she can’t refuse (why does that sound sinister?). Bait the hook with the very prize the student wants – a place in your university, no faffing about with grades, no pressure – and reel the fish in.

Hilary Moriarty

It will of course be a very fat, fine fish – look at the back story and personal statement – obviously an ace student! Barring disaster, highly likely to continue to be a star student.

It looks like a win-win situation: the university has an almost guaranteed intake which means a guaranteed income, and students will have a worry-free year, enjoying his/her studies with no anxiety or exam stress threatening to ruin the chances of the university education for which they have been aiming for years. Easy street. Everyone a winner. How could anyone object?

And it’s not as if an unconditional offer is a new thing. It’s been around quite some time, but it used to be a rare flower in the garden. In 2013, British universities made 2,985 unconditional offers. In just five years, this figure rose to 67,915 offers in 2018. That was 23% of applicants. Lord knows how high the number will go next year, as more universities cotton on to this development in the admissions business.

While cheering the students who have these golden tickets to tertiary education, there must be many a head of sixth form doing their utmost to persuade their students of the wisdom of still working like the devil in the sixth form to get the very best A-level grades they can. We know they need them even if they now don’t believe it.

“You don’t need them now – but you will,
mark my words!”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever…”

“No seriously – you will need them. Every form you fill in for a future employer when you’re applying for any job you can get, will ask about your A-levels – what subjects and what grades? And there won’t be space to record three Es at A-level and explain that actually you could have done much better but you had an unconditional offer because you did get a good lot of GCSEs. You could have got great A-levels but you knew you didn’t need them, so you went off the boil a bit in the sixth form.”

An unconditional offer of a place at a university of your choice reminds me of Japanese knotweed – once a rare thing – now rampant in the land

Sorry, no room to explain all that. The grades will stand, like a tattoo, yours for life. The university of your choice has announced you don’t need the grades proving brilliance. But you do! For your own satisfaction. For your own self-esteem.

For your parents who believed in you and the teachers who helped you get there. Because A-levels are the pinnacle of your secondary education – indeed, your whole school education – and if you can do brilliantly well on this stage of your journey, then why would you choose not to? If you are lucky enough to have a Ferrari of a brain, don’t choose to drive as if it were a Ford Fiesta.

A conditional offer is probably the best incentive to work hard and achieve the best grades possible that any student could need. Take that away, possibly for several students at the same time, and you change the whole climate of the sixth form. The very best students may well have internalised all the incentives they need. They will continue to learn, grow, enquire and strive for their own pride, and the pleasure of pursuing knowledge for its own sake, grades incidental. Even as I describe that, I’m thinking, ‘Er… how common is such an individual and personal interest in A-level material?’ and not much liking my own answer. I have inspected in too many sixth form classrooms where I have seen a teacher/pupil pursue an interesting avenue only to be reined back by other students tapping their pens on the desk and asking, “Is that on the syllabus?”

Perhaps the very best candidates will be safe and successful in this new world. It’s the ones just behind them we have to watch and encourage, poke and prod to continue to work hard even if – ostensibly – they don’t need to. Do not be deceived by an unconditional offer – everyone who finishes a marathon gets a medal. But to be among the first to cross the line – that’s worth the work.

Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former Head and former National Director of The Boarding Schools’ Association