Universities and Unconditional Offers. Why not?

Why do universities insist upon “conditional” rather than “unconditional” offers? Who benefits from this policy? Who endures unnecessary stress and angst because of the conditional offer status?

Exam results

Recent experience of the UCAS process for applications to universities has made us consider the validity of and alternatives to conditional offers, and it seems that certain enlightened universities are also reconsidering their stance.

For the past two years, Birmingham University has increased the number of unconditional offers, initially as a marketing strategy to attract more students, but continuing the policy for more altruistic reasons.



“We hope that students will be particularly attracted to studying here because the unconditional offer demonstrates our belief that they have the necessary qualities to succeed on one of our degree programmes.”

The article continues.

“This is a two-way agreement – we believe the applicant to be capable of achieving good grades and that s/he will continue to do their best to do so.  This merits an unconditional offer. By making the offer unconditional, we are taking some of the pressure off the applicant during the exam period. In return, we expect the applicant to show their commitment to us and make us their firm choice.”

If Birmingham University can take “some of the pressure off the applicant” (and their parents/carers/teachers) by providing unconditional offers, why can’t other universities?

Birmingham Uni

Not only is this university considering the needs of the young people, they are also respecting the professional judgement of the teachers.

“We accept that predictions are not always correct, but our research shows us that those predicted the best grades are very likely to achieve them. Also, we are respecting the judgement of the applicants’ teachers: those who currently know them best from an academic viewpoint. Whilst we cannot be certain that the applicants will achieve their predicted grades, their applications are assessed in a holistic way, taking into account all of the information supplied, including the applicant’s previous achievement, the teacher’s reference and the candidate’s personal statement.”

We understand from personal experience that departments in other universities would like to give more unconditional offers but they’re bound by the admissions policies set by their own institution.


The university admissions process is a complicated matter. All universities are in a highly competitive market these days, especially now that restrictions on numbers have been lifted. This year has seen an increase in the number of students applying for universities and being successful in their application. It has also seen unprecedented numbers of young people going through the angst of the clearing process – finding an alternative university if they haven’t quite achieved the results that were expected.

Again we ask, who benefits from this process? Haven’t these young people suffered enough stress already through the high-stakes exam system, only to then have to endure months of waiting for results and potentially spending days in August re-thinking their “careers” on the spin of a coin?

The arguments against unconditional offers seems to lie with the belief that if a young person receives an unconditional offer, they will stop working for their A-Levels.

As Professor Alan Smithers of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University says,

“There is a real danger that this will lead to the final year being wasted. If final results no longer carry the weight you thought they would it is inevitable that many students are going to coast.”


What an indictment on our education system – that A-Level courses are failing to inspire learning for learning’s sake and are only worthwhile as a stepping stone to higher education?

Money uni

Other concerns about unconditional offers are that they can be used as a means of coercion, particularly by those universities who don’t usually feature as first or “firm” choices by students.

Again, personal experience demonstrates that this is a known practice, whereby universities either provide an unconditional offer or offer a reduction in fees if a student considers their university as an alternative.

Quite frankly, this is a mess. The whole system requires a serious rethink, with the needs of the young person being the most prevalent point for a re-evaluation.

If other countries, like Canada, can commit to an unconditional offer process, why can’t we?
We already know that there are other more enlightened places like Finland who don’t place as much pressure on students and teachers as our own system. There are alternatives.

Why can’t our higher education institutions trust the teaching profession to make realistic predictions about the young people in their care? Why are we so reliant on exam boards and their marking strategies?

Our children and young people are stressed beyond belief. Some young people under perform in exams, not because of a lack of work or lack of interest but because they fully understand the enormity of the need to perform at their best – on one day, in one exam – and that their future is dependent on this one exam on one day.

Apart from competitive cup competitions, which are limited to a miniscule percentage of the population, when in life are you judged on a two hour performance that can dramatically affect your choices for your life? Let alone the fact that it’s insane to think that every 18 year old should have a firm idea of what they actually want to do at this age. Let alone the fact that many young people don’t even want to go to university, yet are often coerced into doing so because the number of successful university applicants features on schools’ data as part of their recruitment strategy and as a statistic on which they are judged.


There is an alternative – unconditional offers to all.

Yes, it’s radical. Yes, it’s entirely different to what we currently and have always experienced in this country – but why is it a spurious alternative?

Obviously other policies would have to be altered to accommodate this. For example, schools should not be judged on how many of their students go on to university, thereby ensuring they provide realistic predictions and references for the universities.

It might even bring about more radical changes, such as a demise in external examinations and a greater emphasis on teacher assessment, both formative and summative – again something that happens in other enlightened countries such as Canada.


It might even bring changes to the curriculum, whereby the emphasis is not on passing exams but on providing a holistic education that encourages learning for learning’s sake.

This, from the Ontario Ministry of Education:

“The Ministry of Education sets curriculum policy and defines what teachers are required to teach and students are expected to learn in each grade and subject. A consistent, province-wide curriculum is thereby ensured. However, teaching and assessment strategies are left to the professional judgement of teachers, enabling them to address individual student needs and deliver the curriculum in a context that is locally meaningful.”


It’s food for thought.

Our own children have gone through this process. We know how stressed young people are and we don’t want any more young people to have to suffer from unnecessary anxiety when they should be free to live and learn at the age of 18.


Pass fail

We leave you with two articles, one from Rod Bristow, the President of Pearson, the other from a 16 year old who still has to go through more stress in a system that is already making her/him ill.


Mr Bristow argues that exams “can only ever be a proxy for what people know at a certain point in time”, but that they are often seen instead as “a binary predictor of success or failure in life.”


“It was a shock when I got to secondary school and learned the implications of the marking scheme: you succeed – and you fit in – or you fail. Suddenly, the creativity I’d brought to all my school projects wasn’t accepted anymore. Instead I had to memorise facts and statistics. That was when I realised that my future would be based on a set of criteria created by exam boards – and that was when I started having panic attacks. . . . . . The system is teaching people that your best isn’t good enough, that you must constantly try harder and that one bad result makes you a failure. Success is measured by how well you remember the criteria on a given day. How can we justify putting the health of children on the line for an exam board’s definition of achievement?”

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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