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What if all university offers were unconditional?

Debbie McVitty proposes a radical solution to the current debate over university admissions - making all offers unconditional
This article is more than 4 years old

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

The current debate over university admissions is founded on a core premise: that A level grades not only are, but should be, the primary determinant of which university a prospective student attends.

We’ve been around the houses on post-qualification admissions a few times now: the Schwartz report of 2004, the UCAS admissions review of 2012 and several substantial pieces of UCU research, which is no doubt informing the Labour Party’s support for the principle. While it’s an idea that’s hard to argue with on paper, the fact remains that no post-qualification admissions system has ever been proposed that met with the approval of all the relevant actors in the system, and as UCAS has pointed out this week, it comes with a bunch of other problems, not least how you put the right support in place for prospective students.

Calls for the introduction of a post qualification admissions system are grounded on evidence (most recently from the Sutton Trust) that predicted A level grades may – and even more so in the case of prospective students from less advantaged backgrounds – turn out to be inaccurate. We can accept that grade prediction is not a science and that, like all subjective judgements, it is subject to bias. We might also note that students from less privileged backgrounds are less likely overall to achieve top A level grades – both points would rather seem to advance the case for downplaying the importance of grades, or contextualising them, rather than building the system around them.

What about unconditional offers?

Outrage at the rise of unconditional offers is implicitly based on low tolerance for the idea that a candidate could enter a selective university without having achieved the “right” A level grades. There is also frequently concern expressed that holding an unconditional offer could cause applicants to work less hard for their A levels, and not achieve what they would otherwise be capable of. Whether that’s an issue is also a matter of subjective judgement; no doubt it is frustrating for schools who are judged on their students’ A level results but I’m not convinced that it matters in the round. You could argue that the grade a student gets reflects their disposition as well as their academic potential, and that a grade achieved only through the incentive of a university place is actually an inaccurate reflection of their future performance because the future performance will take place with less obvious external motivators.

The premise that grades are what counts is both a practical reflection of the system as it has been in the past, especially in a context where the number of university places exceeded the number of prospective candidates, and a normative assumption about the appropriateness of matching high-performing candidates to high-prestige universities. As an aside, it also places a great deal of faith in the reliability of A level grades as an indicator of the scope of an individual’s potential to benefit from a course of study at university. For those with very high grades and those with very low it’s probably more cut and dried than for the majority who are somewhere in the middle. And it’s not long before T levels arrive on the scene to confound the picture further.

A modest proposal

So, what if, rather than accepting the premise, we doubled down on rejecting it? What if universities agreed to make all offers unconditional? Rather than setting conditions for entry, universities would simply admit or reject candidates based on prior academic performance, predicted grades, personal statements, interviews, portfolios, auditions and teacher (or other) references, as appropriate.

There would still need to be a clearing process of sorts, but it could run throughout the admissions cycle, as candidates who had accepted a university offer self-released back into the general pool if they changed their minds, and universities continued to advertise available courses until the end of the cycle. For students, the stress of not knowing whether they would get the grades would vanish (to be replaced in some cases by the stress of being rejected by their chosen university, but that is a feature of the system that we are already collectively prepared to tolerate).

The proposed system takes as its alternative premise that it doesn’t really matter all that much if a student who has demonstrated academic potential in a subject area fluffs their A levels and ends up in a selective university anyway. Even taking into account the propensity of a subset of students to take their foot off the gas pedal having received an unconditional offer, the majority would probably get what they would have got anyway (and how would be able to prove they hadn’t?) As Ofqual has recently clarified following reports that some students get the “wrong” grade, many A level subjects are marked according to qualitative criteria in any case.

It would also at one stroke put an end to the wrangling over contextual admissions – universities would feel much freer to make offers to any student they liked the look of and who they felt would contribute to the kind of learning community they were trying to develop. The potential for forward-thinking universities to take risks on students who might have different support needs, but who would bring perspectives and experiences that would enrich the learning community, would be enhanced. It would also encourage deeper conversation about the meaning of “academic potential” and how it could be evidenced. Some universities would, no doubt, want to put additional hoops in place to be sure they were selecting their preferred candidates – but they are all in principle free to do this anyway.

I don’t doubt there are a million barriers to making this work, not least university autonomy over admissions and the daftness of league tables that take students’ grades on entry as an indicator of quality. But, at the very least, before we go another five rounds over the merits and demerits of post qualification admissions and continue the collective anxiety over the rise of unconditional offers, we should go back to first principles and check that they are still relevant for the kind of higher education system we want to have.



7 responses to “What if all university offers were unconditional?

  1. In proposing that all offers based on predicted grades should be unconditional, Ms McVitty seems to be focusing on those students who get less good grades than predicted, and arguing that they should not lose any places that have been offered.

    But what about those students who get better A level grades than predicted? They are badly served by the present system, but would they be any better served by Ms McVitty’s? I can’t see how.

    All in all, the recent Labour proposal of basing offers on actual A level results seems to me the fairest and most sensible.

  2. Given the HE sector is now market driven, with students incurring considerable debt as they study, why not remove any barrier to study by ignoring any past academic achievement (does it really tell us anything useful?) and allowing all who wish to go to university to attend? They have until the end of the first term to prove their ability to engage effectively and they can leave without stigma. This would require a different approach to delivery in that first term but the incentive would be on HEIs to retain as many as they can and that would drive the necessary changes needed. This is not about dumbing down – standards remain critical – but past academic performance is not necessarily the best guide to an individual’s ability to engage effectively with the distinctive demands of a university (or College) education. This approach would also encourage more mature learners who wouldn’t have to go through labyrinthine processes to prove they can study at this level. Ok – I know this is probably the most unpopular suggestion!

  3. I agree with Fiona that ignoring past academic achievement is a desirable direction to go in, but the current system does already allow for that (and that is partially what is causing the spike in unconditional offers). The problem is that Universitys need to do even more than give the appearance of selecting students who are of a sufficient entry standard ability – they actually need to get them through their degree (to “completion”) otherwise they will receive some quite serious punishments under all 3 major league table algorithms.

    That is also ignoring the reality that a system where there are no barriers to entry will lose a lot of its current purpose (the selectivity of the top universitys is part of the attraction to prospective students and employers). This does raise the issue, however, of whether there isn’t room for more government involvement in a standardised pre-degree admissions system where completion rates are irrelevant, perhaps utilizing existing FE colleges?

    Whatever the direction that HE and HE admissions moves in over the coming years, I have to say that a system based on using predicted grades to issue offers (with no scrutiny of those offering the predictions, except a positive based on teh number getting to “top” institutions) is not a fair system when any smidgen of selectivity is present. And there is certainly more than a smidgen of selectivity at the moment.

  4. I like the article and I think it is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough. I think we should be thinking to overturn all admissions criteria for university and rethink this entire process. I would advocate for eliminating A Levels and BTEC results. This would include any high-stakes testing that pipelines students in these inappropriate ways. I would advocate for new approaches to test the ability of students to enter into the university and whether or not they will be successful. I have advocated for, in another WonkHE article, that we use strength-based testing or other forms of practical methods that truly test knowledge, skills, motivation and performance. That cannot be done through current testing methods and it does a disservice to the underprivileged and under-represented. I have asked OFS to consider a larger conversation about admission policies, practices and procedures changes that will change the HE sector for the future. How about we do something different while we have the chance. If we don’t put it in place before the next surge in possible students entering into university, then we will miss our opportunity. I look forward to the continued discussion in this area.

  5. This makes a great deal of sense. The mad rush of Clearing would only be amplified by a post-qualification admissions system, and the ‘bribes’/incentives issue would remain as universities fight for students with their grades in hand. If we consider the problem in the process to be A-levels as the focus of admissions, progress is possible. Universities can use other markers of potential while keeping the same longer timeline for applicant selection, and avoiding ugly conversion tactics more suited to the capital world of retail than the more thoughtful academic sphere.

  6. Now, here is what I expect of a ‘think tank’: come up with intelligent, potentially radical ideas and encourage some careful thinking. This is worth a punt. PQA appears to work in many countries, Scotland, Germany and others for example. Whilst it has drawbacks, name a system without its flaws. We’re allowing a negative, political narrative of unconditional offers to drown out a carefully considered view of the issue. We need a more contextual admissions system, but the content must be sufficiently broad to make it meaningful, and there are good ideas here. Also, we must ensure that any contextual system undermines efforts to game the system from the so-called elite. The degree of snobbery in the HE sector is striking; the elite are supposedly better off being educated in elite institutions, and vice versa seems to be the outdated mantra today. Alongside these changes, we need a radical makeover of increasingly irrelevant metrics that are driving most HE practice.

  7. “Ignoring past academic achievement – does it tell us anything useful”?
    Well actually, yes it can. A student who has just got an A* in maths is equipped to start a maths degree course much more than one who has just got an E. Differences involving adjacent grades may well tell us little, but larger ones do.

    That’s not saying the student with the lower grade shouldn’t be able to do a degree course – far from it! But it does make a significant difference to the course if you have to reteach A-Level first.

    I suspect those saying “it doesn’t tell us anything useful” are predominantly not in STEM areas, or others where later learning relies on a thorough grasp of earlier material.

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