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Blog: Unconditional Love

Newly released UCAS data has shown a dramatic increase in the amount of unconditional offers this year, with 23% of students receiving an unconditional offer (a total of 67,915), in comparison to 13% last year and only 1% in 2013.

This has prompted mass criticism of universities and their role in the admissions process with claims referring to the ease of obtaining a place at university in addition to the effect unconditional offers have on A Level results.

However, in a sector that is becoming ever increasingly driven by market forces, is this not simply a response to the Governmental policy that has been changing the landscape of higher education in recent years?

Interestingly, the sharp rise in unconditional offers has coincided with major changes in the higher education sector as a result of Government policies. Often focus is drawn to the increase in tuition fees in the marketisation of education, however, particular focus must also be placed on the Government’s decision to remove the cap on student numbers at individual institutions. The lifting of these student numbers in 2015 by the Government led to a greater increase in unconditional offers and, now that this new climate in higher education has settled, the trend has increased in this trajectory.

Following on from the release of these results, comments against universities have trickled in with Geoff Barton, General Secretary of The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), saying that “this huge increase in unconditional offers is driven by competition between universities and is not in the best interests of students.” However, what is continuously being ignored is how this very environment was not created by the universities, but rather the toxic policies that have gradually torn away at the heart of higher education in this country.

Perception vs Reality

Minister for Higher Education, Sam Gyimah, argued that universities were more interested in “putting bums on seats” than providing for their students. An interesting approach to take from a Government that have not only increased fees for students, but removed support schemes that were in place for students, in addition to pressuring universities into this competitive atmosphere in the first place, with the Government prioritising quantity rather than quality.

The hypocrisy in the accusations that universities are valuing ‘bums on seats’ over the quality of education is a dangerous path for the Government to take if they continue to promote the marketisation of the Higher Education sector.

Moreover, with the passing of the Higher Education Act last year, the Government explicitly protects a higher education institution’s autonomy in the admissions process. And yet, Sam Gyimah earlier today stated that “this autonomy comes with responsibility” – a strong implication that such autonomy for universities must be responsive to the priorities of the Government.

The debate around unconditional offers opens wider debates within higher education and the entrance into it, such as the role of A Levels and their value in addition to the security and reassurance that unconditional offers provide. The argument could be made that students receiving unconditional offers alleviates the pressure on them, allowing for them to have a greater focus on their education rather than meeting certain requirements.

The substantial rise in unconditional offers therefore raises important questions for the higher education sector, but one thing that it does explicitly demonstrate is that the worrying trend of higher education becoming an increasingly competitive marketplace, which is categorically having an impact on students.

The blame directed at universities for providing this culture are unfounded. Universities are being forced to adapt to a system that has been orchestrated to produce results on paper, or as Mr Gyimah states “bums on seats”, and the questions being asked must be directed towards the Government.

If an unconditional offer means that it is not subject to requirements, then why is it being made subject to marketisation?

JACK O'NEILL
VICE PRESIDENT, EDUCATION