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House of Commons Hansard
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Unconditional University Offers
28 March 2018
Volume 638

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered unconditional university offers.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, for what I hope will be a debate that is both pithy and genuinely important.

I remember being at school when I first heard about unconditional offers. I thought that perhaps some Oxbridge college, then the usual issuer of such things, would be so obviously struck by my talents that an unconditional offer would be a possibility. The prospect of an unconditional offer gave me hope of relief from the pressures of the exams that dominated my life then and that sometimes dominate young people’s lives now. So I hope that hon. Members will not interpret this speech as an attack on unconditional offers per se.

By the way, I pause briefly to add that in so far as Oxbridge was struck by my obvious talents, it was only to suggest that I attend a different university, but perhaps taking my teenage self down a peg or two was the best thing that Oxbridge could have done.

Back then in 1999, and indeed up until last year, the typical student who was made an unconditional offer was still predicted three As—by the way, I was not predicted three As—although Oxbridge had abolished unconditional offers earlier. UCAS has reported that 3,000 unconditional offers were made in 2013, and that in 2017 the figure was 50,000. The Department for Education and the Select Committee on Education are therefore right to look at the overall picture, which has seen a quintupling of such applications, according to UCAS, from less than 1% of all offers in the past to more than 5% today. In my own constituency nearly 30% of all applicants received at least one unconditional offer, and those applicants were predicted grades ranging from BBC up to ABB.

This growth in unconditional offers comes not from universities that dominate the top of the league tables but from elsewhere; nor does it come in the subjects for which university entrance is the most hotly contested. Less than 0.1% of all medicine and dentistry students received unconditional offers, compared with nearly 10% of all mass communications and documentations degrees. As a former journalist myself, I would not dare to demean a media studies degree, but given that at one time there were more people studying the media at university than there were actually working in all of it, it is right to ask why universities are seeking to fill their courses in this new way, and whether it is for financial reasons.

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First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter forward for debate; I spoke to him before the debate, telling him that I would seek to make an intervention. Does he agree that the fact that over 15 times more unconditional offers as in the past have been made to university students in the UK indicates a mindset among universities of focusing on ensuring that they reach their capacity of “bums on seats” rather than on a student’s ability to take a course? Does he agree that some children will go with a course that is less suited to them than other courses as they will know it is in the bag, as it were, and that they will therefore miss out on courses that could have been better for them as an individual?

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I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, that contrasts sharply with what Universities UK has said in response to the Education Committee:

“Unconditional offers account for a very small proportion of all offers made by universities. It is simply not in the interests of universities to take students without the potential to succeed at university.”

There has clearly been a huge growth in the number of unconditional offers, for some of the reasons that the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned.

Schools have expressed concerns about students across the spectrum of abilities not performing to their full potential in exams, because they are safe in the knowledge that they have already secured a place at university regardless of their grades. Although that can be a welcome safety net for some students, we must balance it with the impacts that it can have on schools and how it affects their exam results overall, for which they are held accountable and against which, of course, they have their own performance measured. This is not a new problem but it has now spread far more widely, as I said earlier.

In my constituency, anecdotal evidence has been cited of students giving up college courses after receiving an unconditional offer, which of course may result in their struggling at university if they have missed fundamental information that they would otherwise have been taught. If we let this development go unchecked, we are letting our young people down at a time when we should be supporting them in preparing for their next step in education. Of course all universities should be able to make unconditional offers, but in doing so they should surely exercise a duty of care to the interests of the prospective student at the same time.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s views in a moment on what is a complex matter. Some universities, for instance, have reportedly been inducing students to come to them by giving unconditional offers, so long as they are ranked as the student’s first choice. In the competitive landscape that a large number of universities find themselves in, such a tactic could be seen as potentially damaging to students, when other incentives would more typically involve vouchers or computers.

The risk is that a student might end up with a degree from one university when they might have got into another university that is ranked more highly, and that they might end up with worse results in their school exams because they did not need good grades to get to university. It is a vicious circle if things go wrong, and it applies to all subjects rather than simply being about the promotion of the most academic subjects.

I will give an example from my constituency. Already this year, 23 students at Boston Grammar School have received an unconditional offer from at least one university. That is more than a third of the students from the school who have applied to universities for admission through UCAS. If there is a demotivational effect, there is a risk that it will reflect badly both on the school and on the students themselves in later life.

The headmaster of Boston Grammar School, John McHenry, who has helped me to put together this speech, tells me that the school has even seen comments suggesting that universities would “appreciate” it if students completed their studies. He says:

“In other words, it actually won’t make any difference at all if they don’t finish their A-level courses. It’s very difficult to understand how it is possible for universities to permit students onto degree courses without passing examinations, when schools themselves have strict admission criteria relating to A-level courses. How would a ‘free for all’ at A level impact on GCSE results nationally?”

If people drop out of school courses prior to university, or prior to doing anything else, it will compromise both their ability to complete a degree and their CV for the rest of their life. This is a serious issue.

The risks of having the wrong unconditional offers system are obvious: universities struggle to attract the best students for a course, which can lead to those with lower exam results being accepted, but those students then end up struggling further, which in turn holds those children back when they become adults. It compromises the long-term quality of that university course, and schools, too, are punished for declining results. The ramifications of getting this matter wrong are extensive.

Universities are rightly independent of Government, but they are also regulated and subsidised by taxpayers. In this area, as in others, a totally free market may not serve the wider interest. As The Times Educational Supplement has highlighted, some universities have explored making so-called “contextual offers”, whereby lower grades are required of members of certain demographics. Although that seems like part of the solution, that sort of positive discrimination should very much be handled with care. Likewise, courses such as music and art may rightly rely on a portfolio of work rather than purely relying on A-level grades. However, those two things do not explain the situation that we are in.

This debate is ultimately about pupils; it is not about universities or schools, but about the pupils who are going through the system potentially damaging their CVs and job prospects for the rest of their lives. I end by quoting Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders:

“Universities need to understand that making unconditional offers to students on the basis of predicted grades is not in the best interests of these young people. It can lead to students being less focused on their A-levels because they feel their university place is in the bag. They then attain a lower grade than they are capable of achieving and this can later become a significant problem for them if a prospective future employer takes A-level grades into account in their selection process. We urge universities not to make unconditional offers on the basis of predicted grades, and advise students against choosing a course on the basis of an unconditional offer and to ensure they find the university and course that best suits them.”

Today I echo that call, and I hope that the Minister will consider reviewing the effect of unconditional offers on the overall education ecosystem.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing the debate. I want to talk briefly about the impact of unconditional offers in restricting opportunities.

The first problem with unconditional offers is that they tend to come with conditions, mainly that students must place that university as their first choice. In 2017, less than one fifth of unconditional offers were down as insurance offers. Students are therefore often encouraged to pick a lower-performing university or a course that is not ideal for them. In other words, they hedge their bets. We are inadvertently encouraging them to underestimate themselves, yet universities are supposed to open doors, not close them. In the past, unconditional offers were often made on the basis that students were perfect matches or star pupils, but that is not the case anymore. UCAS found that predicted grades of BBB were more likely to get unconditional offers than straight As. With an increase in fees, we have seen an increase in unconditional offers. Some 50,000 students last year were made an unconditional offer. That is an increase of 1,629% since 2013.

A second way that unconditional offers can restrict opportunities is through the knock-on effect they can have on A-level results, as we have heard. Unconditional offers encourage students to take their foot off the gas, which can have important long-term ramifications because those A-level results stay on students’ CVs for life. When I am seeking to employ someone—I am sure colleagues do this—I look at their A-level results and give them due diligence and consideration. Some colleges have reported that up to 75% of students given unconditional offers have failed to meet the expected grades. Again, that is not opening doors but closing them.

I sit on the Education Committee, and in December the chairman of Ofqual admitted that the situation is very concerning. I agree with the head of UCAS, who said that we need an “open and honest debate” about unconditional offers and their impact. We need to halt the rising tide of unconditional offers, which are closing doors and opportunities for young people in Chippenham and across the country.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing this important debate and on the balanced and self-deprecating way in which he made his speech. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the issues he raised.

I, too, am deeply concerned by the recent large increases in the number of unconditional offers received by students and the potential impact that those offers can have, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) so clearly outlined. For example, some students may coast in their studies at school or college or perhaps not even complete their course. Another possibility is that students might accept the obvious attractions of an unconditional offer at one institution, rather than a conditional offer at an institution that would better suit their ability level. I want to be clear that higher education providers should not make unconditional offers to students who lack the talent and potential to complete a higher education qualification, especially when those students may benefit from exploring different education options or becoming employed on finishing their A-level qualifications.

It is right that higher education institutions should be able to make unconditional offers when it is appropriate, but I agree with Members that that should be done with extreme care. I therefore welcome this opportunity to highlight the sharp rise in the number of unconditional offers made in recent years and why it is right for the House to be concerned. Data from UCAS for last year shows that the number of unconditional offers to 18-year-olds increased to more than 50,000 from fewer than 3,000 in 2013—a seventeenfold increase. Last year, 17.5% of 18-year-old applicants received at least one unconditional offer. While the overall proportion of such offers remains relatively low, at some providers unconditional offers account for more than 20% of all offers made. The House is right to be concerned.

Universities rightly have autonomy over their admissions. The principle of institutional autonomy has been recognised as central to our higher education system for many years. In fact, the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 goes considerably further than previous legislation in recognising that principle. Institutions select their students, and it is their responsibility to ensure that they only take students who are appropriately qualified and able to succeed on the course they are applying for. I expect institutions to assess carefully the impact of unconditional offers on students, ensuring that they really do get the right students for the right courses. They should not allow students without the potential to succeed to continue into a route that will not benefit them.

There is considerable advice from UCAS for prospective students on how to consider unconditional offers. UCAS advises applicants to wait until they have received initial decisions from all their university and college choices and then to consider them carefully before accepting an unconditional offer as their firm choice. It also emphasises to students who accept unconditional offers the importance of completing their qualifications to the best of their ability, recognising that employers are likely to be interested in their exam results as well as their degree classification.

Our reforms in the 2017 Act will help ensure that institutions are accountable for ensuring that the students they recruit can succeed. We have put in place a new regulatory framework, and the teaching excellence and student outcomes framework will include metrics on non-continuation. The TEF will take into account student feedback, drop-out rates and graduate outcomes to help prospective students make the right choices and ensure that they get the value for money they deserve from higher education. That will act as a strong incentive for institutions to ensure that they recruit sensibly and support all their students to succeed.

In addition, and in response to the concerns that many have expressed about the impact of unconditional offers, the Government have already asked the Office for Students to monitor and review the number of unconditional offers made by registered higher education providers. It is important that the sector and the public have the evidence available to make clear judgements about any impact such offers may have on student access and outcomes in higher education. The Office for Students intends to work with UCAS to analyse the data on unconditional offers made during the last three years. They will look at such factors as provider, location, subject and student characteristics, including the grades with which they ultimately entered higher education relative to their predicted grades. That will enable initial conclusions to be drawn on the scale and focus of unconditional offer making and its impact on attainment prior to entry into higher education. The OfS will produce a report on the first aspect of the work this year.

The OfS will also analyse the relationship between unconditional offer making and subsequent outcomes in non-continuation, attainment, progression to postgraduate study and employment. Where the OfS identifies a problem, I expect it to take action in accordance with its powers set out in legislation. The exact course of action will be for the OfS to determine. I am clear that I do not intend to see the life chances of young people adversely affected by a desire to fill places at some institutions.

This is the right debate to have, and we are having it at the right time. The OfS will comes into being on 1 April, so it will be well placed to take the necessary action in the interests of students, as my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness said. We want the university system to act in favour of students.

Question put and agreed to.