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1 in 3 UK uni applicants are guaranteed a place before they sit their exams

Not everyone thinks this is a good thing. 

A report by the UCAS admissions agency revealed that one in three 18-year-olds applying for universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2018 received some form of unconditional offer. Unconditional offers are when universities offer a space to students without them needing to earn certain grades in their end-of-school exams. Universities use them as a tool to increase how many students they enrol each year, because more fee-paying students means more money for the university.

To increase their acceptance rate even further, most universities present unconditional offers with strings attached - usually that the student must pick that university as their firm choice and reject any other offers they receive. In some cases, incentives to select the university as a firm choice are also given in the form of guaranteed accommodation or bursaries. A UCAS survey in 2019 found that more than half of unconditional offers came with a condition or incentive attached, which is why these types of offers have been coined as conditional unconditional offers.

There has been some backlash against conditional unconditional offers because some people believe they put unnecessary pressure on students and stop the application process from fully supporting student choice. Students may feel forced to accept an unconditional offer from a university they liked less because they do not know if they will get the grades needed to be accepted into their preferred choice. When Universities UK, a body which represents Britain's higher education institutions, published its code of practice on fair admissions - which universities are expected but not required to sign - it advised universities to avoid making conditional unconditional offers to students. It believes students should be able to select their university based solely on which is best suited to them.

There is also opposition to the idea of unconditional offers generally, on the basis that students who have received unconditional offers may not try as hard at school to reach their target grades, since they no longer need them to get into university. Some also worry that by essentially lowering university entry-grade requirements, unconditional offers end up putting less academically-gifted students into degree programmes they will struggle to cope with, leading to stress, unhappiness and higher flunk-out rates.

However, the current research seems to somewhat dispute both these claims. UCAS has found that students with unconditional offers are only slightly less likely to achieve their predicted A-Level grades than students without them. And data by Sheffield Hallam University on the performance of their students who came in via unconditional offers found that there was no difference in their attainment at university or their professional outcomes after they graduated.

Part of the disconnect between these two positions may come from the fact that most students don’t hit their predicted grades, regardless of whether they have an unconditional offer or not. Studies have found that 75 percent of students are predicted higher A-Level grades than they ultimately get. Given this, it’s perhaps not surprising that students themselves think the benefits of unconditional offers outweigh the negatives: 70 percent of UCAS applicants are in favour of unconditional offers.

Unconditional offers may also improve the diversity of university graduates. Teenagers from working class backgrounds are more likely to get lower grades compared to middle-class students, so unconditional offers may increase their chances of getting into higher education. That in turn increases their chances of getting higher-paid professional jobs, which creates a fairer society. For many students, even conditional unconditional offers may be worth it. Being guaranteed a space at university can heavily reduce the stress of preparing for A-Level exams, which is good for students’ mental health and wellbeing. And the monetary incentives that come with these offers can relieve students from some of the costs associated with going to university. That's not an insignificant benefit.

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