In 2017, there was a steep rise in the number of unconditional offers made by universities to A Level students. As many as 40% more unconditional offers were issued by universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland than in 2016, leading to an outcry in some quarters at the suggestion that such offers are undermining the integrity of the A Level system. But are these claims warranted? We take a look.

What are unconditional offers?

Students in the UK apply to universities via the centralised Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) system, and university departments then give offers of places on their courses through the system. The vast majority of these offers are conditional on the applicant attaining a minimum set of grades in their A Level exams, for example a B and two Cs. But universities can also issue unconditional offers, which don’t specify any minimum A Level requirements at all.

Why universities issue unconditional offers

Universities tend to issue unconditional offers to students they really want to attract to their courses. They anticipate that other universities competing for the same students will hand these students conditional offers, and they hope that by promising applicants a stress-free ride through the end of their A Level studies, they can tempt students into accepting their offer.

Remember that offers issues and accepted through the UCAS system are binding on both institution and student, so a student who accepts an unconditional offer “to be safe” commits to attending that institution, even if their results are better than they expected. This practice can backfire on an institution, however: it’s not uncommon for students to pick a challenging conditional offer as their first choice, and to take up the unconditional offer as an insurance choice, to ensure they’re able to attend a good university and avoid the stress of the Clearing process even if their A Levels go disastrously wrong!

Why are unconditional offers suddenly in the news?

There’s nothing new about the practice of issuing unconditional offers. What is remarkable, however, is the steep rise in the number of unconditional offers issued to applicants, and the type of students to whom these offers are made. Traditionally unconditional offers were used primarily to take the exam pressure off otherwise very high-performing students – those estimated AAA or AAB at A Level, for example. These were students with a proven track record of excellence who could be virtually guaranteed to thrive in a university environment even if they underperformed at A Level. Unconditional offers are now being issued much more freely to students estimated to score in the B to C range in their A Level exams, sparking accusations that universities are undermining the A Level “gold standard” to put more bums on lecture hall seats.

Why the change? And are A Levels really being “undermined”?

If one were being uncharitable, one might suggest that universities were simply seeking to compensate for reforms in A Level exams that have supposedly made them more rigorous and challenging, and ensuring that their admissions don’t fall as a result. If this were indeed the case, you could probably argue that universities were indeed undermining efforts to ensure the rigour of A Levels.

But the story behind the A Level reforms isn’t that simple. It’s not just that A Levels have been made more rigorous but that they’ve been refocused on final, end-of-course exams. This reverses a longstanding trend towards modular, coursework-based approaches to assessment that are more inclusive and favour students with specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia, or those who simply find exams stressful. In many ways, A Levels have been recalibrated not to test knowledge or academic ability but to test the ability to take exams. Since most universities use modular and coursework-based assessment systems there’s a case to be made that a student’s estimated grades – supplied by teachers who evaluate their performance regularly – is of greater value in determining that student’s likely university performance than their final A Level marks.

What seems clear from the recent trends is that universities are basing their admissions procedures on whether they think a given applicant can thrive on their courses rather than on their final A Level exam results. Whether that technically involves undermining the A Level system or not probably depends on your perspective, but we can probably expect to see more unconditional offers issued in the future.