According to UCAS, the number of unconditional offers has risen to 7.1% of all offers. Many articles list the rise in unconditional offers as a negative, as though they somehow corrupt the system. However, I would argue the opposite – for many of these students, this is exactly what they need.
A levels have been treated too much like a university entrance exam. Even though not all students use them to go to uni, school constantly reminded us that if we didn’t work hard, we wouldn’t get in to our top university. Exam season is hard enough anyway without a university looking over your shoulder. The increase in unconditional offers puts more emphasis on past achievements such as GCSEs and the personal statement, rather than multiplying the pressure for the coming exams.
Apart from anything else, life doesn’t just stop for two years. Everyday pressures like having a job, relationships and driving lessons, along with unprecedented struggles like illness or the death of a family member can knock a student off track in a heartbeat. As usual, the former impacts disadvantaged students more – many don’t have a choice about getting a job. The unfair expectation that every spare moment must be spent hoarding knowledge for the exam season is simply unreasonable. There was the recommendation this year that students spend 100 hours revising over Easter, which is almost a third of the whole break. If you work on the assumption that students get their 8 hours of sleep (if only), that means that two-thirds of their whole break would be spent either sleeping or revising. Add a part-time job into the mix, or inevitable family commitments, and you’re looking at an insanely stressful two weeks. For most students, that’s still with half a term to go before any exams. I don’t even want to know what is expected while actually taking the exams. While, again, this is more a criticism of the exams themselves, unconditional offers are a way to decrease the role of A-levels as university entrance exams.
The main argument against unconditional offers appears to be that supposedly students achieve lower grades when faced with lower pressure, although I’m yet to see a statistic. But with so many students having meltdowns in class, struggling to get sleep and piling far more pressure on themselves than any university could, arguably this says worse things about the system than about unconditional offers. If a requirement of doing well is mentally breaking yourself, I’d rather fail. Unconditional offers may take some of the pressure off, but in reality, many students need this. I don’t have a statistic, but I’m willing to bet that students do much better without having a breakdown. Last year, I was so stressed about a maths exam that when I walked in and saw someone in my seat, I freaked out and ran from the room, having to be coaxed back in by teachers mid-anxiety attack and holding up the whole exam. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t have time to calm down and so walked out with a U. I was predicted an A. This year, I had exactly zero meltdowns in exams, largely due to the fact that it wasn’t the end of the world (or at least my university place) if I failed. That isn’t to say, however, that it wasn’t hugely important to me.
Many speak as though university is the only thing that could possibly motivate a student, but nobody wants to do badly. There’s a reason that students are given unconditional offers – for example Lydia wrote a killer personal statement, and I had proof of previous achievement in the form of 5 A*s at GCSE. Other people I know have had to pass an entrance exam or send in a portfolio, and that’s how they got their unconditional. The kinds of students that do well in these evaluations are hardly going to be the sort to not try hard in exams.
It’s like they’re using unconditional offers as a scapegoat, when in reality any decrease in grades is likely caused by the new A-level system. The government themselves admit the existence of the Sawtooth Effect, which sees students sitting the first three years of a qualification do considerably worse than those in later years. This year especially, A-levels are very much going to be impacted by the quality of teaching. With many exam boards not even releasing a textbook yet, students are even more reliant on teachers to point them in the right direction. However, even the teachers couldn’t answer some of our questions about the structure of the exam, as the exam board hadn’t given them. In many cases, my teachers used material from the old exams and had to hope for the best, but many teachers will have taken different approaches. This has the potential to skew results, meaning that capable students simply weren’t taught the right things. Unconditional offers will protect some of these students from the damage that this could do to their academic future.
The one negative thing that I will admit is that they give universities the power to take advantage of already scared students. If somebody receives all their UCAS offers and is faced with an AAB requirement from a Russell group but an unconditional from a less prestigious university, they may choose the safer option out of fear. What’s more, both Lydia and I accepted “conditional” unconditionals, in which we had to put the university as our first choice in order for the offer to be unconditional. This eliminates the option of having an unconditional to fall back on, which in my opinion feels a bit like playing mind games.
Overall, though, unconditional offers are protecting capable students from losing out on results day. We already know the importance of these exams, and there is inevitably pressure regardless of university applications. Those offers don’t just come for free, they’re earned, and if the reward for that is a little less stress, I would argue that that’s a good thing.