2020 Spring Term 2

The know zone

  • Primary inspections
    The new Ofsted Inspection Framework has been in place since September and, so far, the emerging picture shows a somewhat mixed bag of inspection experiences in primary schools. Here, Tiffnie Harris shares her insights. More
  • Resource management
    Hayley Dunn provides a summary of a report on the Schools Resource Management Adviser (SRMA) pilot and says that while it provides useful pointers for schools, the report fails to recognise wider funding concerns. More
  • What's on offer?
    University offers have reached new levels of complexity. But is this complexity necessary or is it masking some rather opaque practices? Kevin Gilmartin explores what is really going on with university offer-making. More
  • Digital Detox
    ASCL's Online Editor Sally Jack shares some suggestions on how to manage your digital selves on social media and keep your mental health healthy. More
  • Should GCSEs be scrapped?
    Have GCSEs had their day? Should we have a lighter touch form of assessment at 16? Or do GCSEs represent an inviolable 'gold standard'? And is another upheaval of exams just too much trouble? Here ASCL members share their views. More
  • Non nobis solum
    Headteacher Catharine Darnton joined ASCL Council last September and is a member of the Funding Committee. More
  • Better left unsaid
    The relentless road to self-improvement is paved with potential unhappiness and frustration. Wouldn't it be even better if we simply settled for everyday excellence, asks Carl Smith. More
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University offers have reached new levels of complexity. But is this complexity necessary or is it masking some rather opaque practices? Kevin Gilmartin explores what is really going on with university offer-making.

What’s on offer?

Anyone who studies law tends to look first at ‘the law of contract’. This means that if an offer is made and then accepted, then this forms a contract. For many years this was what happened through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) and pre-1992 through its predecessor, the Universities Central Council on Admissions (UCCA). Applicants would receive up to five offers and then select their first choice and a lower insurance choice. Quite simple really. But with the marketisation of the higher education (HE) sector (£9,000+ fees), and the removal of university caps on numbers admitted, university offer-making has entered a new phase. Many who work in sixth form schools and colleges consider it to be a very backward step for applicants.

What has changed with offer-making?

Unconditional offers have always been a feature of university offer-making for 16–19 year-olds. Traditionally, they were given to applicants who were considered so outstanding for academic or other reasons that universities wanted them to attend, come what may. Some courses, such as art or drama, often awarded unconditional offers following auditions or seeing the quality of the applicant’s portfolio. However, in the last UCAS cycle (2019), a staggering 37.7% of applicants received an offer containing some form of unconditional component.

What does an unconditional offer mean?

We now have at least three different types of unconditional offer: ‘ direct unconditional’ (the type referred to above); ‘ conditional unconditional’ (no specific exam requirements but only given if applicants put that university as first choice); and ‘ conditional conditional’, referred to as an ‘attainment offer’ (where applicants receive a much lower offer if they put that university first).

Does this matter?

Universities point out that unconditional offers are intended to take the pressure off applicants or allow universities to make more contextual offers to benefit the most disadvantaged students. But many schools and colleges are concerned about the impact on their students’ behaviour. The big worry is that many take their ‘foot off the pedal’ – indeed the latest UCAS end-of-cycle report (https://tinyurl.com/u4dgnu2) reveals that applicants with unconditional offers are more likely to miss their predicted grades (57% of applicants holding an unconditional offer missed their predicted A level attainment by three or more points, compared to 43% of applicants holding a conditional offer). There is also further concern that socially disadvantaged students tend to miss their predicted grades the most, once they receive unconditional offers. Typically, these students are then more likely to work longer hours in part-time jobs, spend more time in a carer role at home and are less likely to have family role models for guidance.

Might this change?

It is not just schools and colleges who are concerned about this. There has been substantial media coverage and the government has expressed disquiet. This has resulted in a number of reviews.

Universities UK (UUK), which is the advocacy organisation for universities in the United Kingdom, has just closed a review of fair admissions to HE with a focus on social mobility (https://tinyurl.com/sarmkt6). The Office for Students (OfS), which is the regulator and competition authority for the HE sector in England, is reviewing whether current admissions practices are best serving the student interest (https://tinyurl.com/qp5z2td). This is potentially worrying to HE as the OfS wields real power in funding decisions, particularly concerning regulating universities’ ‘access and participation plans’ that set out how HE providers will improve equality of opportunity in HE. Crucially, these plans must be approved by the OfS if providers want to charge higher tuition fees (which they typically do). Finally, UCAS itself is looking at how it might get universities to reform the process – in effect getting universities to put their own house in order before they are forced to do so by the OfS or government.

The future? 

There have been recent announcements from UCAS that it believes universities are bowing to pressure and will reduce the number of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers this year. Alongside these reviews, there is also a call by some parties to introduce a post-qualification application (PQA) system, similar to many countries around the world where students apply once they have their results. What is more likely perhaps is a post-qualification offer (PQO) system, that is, where students build up a long list of selected universities (through visits and research) and wait for universities to make an offer once applicants have their results. It therefore does look likely that the application process will change. Let us hope that the new ‘contract’ that emerges is to the student’s and not the university’s benefit.

Kevin Gilmartin
ASCL Post-16 and Colleges Specialist