Don't force pupils to accept unconditional offers ahead of other university places, school leaders urge

Pupils should not be “compelled” to accept unconditional offers for university places until after achieving their A-levels, a coalition of school leaders has urged.

A group of university bosses, private school heads and academy trust bosses outlined proposals for overhauling unconditional university offers, in a public letter published today, to ensure they don’t cause students to stop concentrating in year 13.

The group said pupils receiving an unconditional offer before receiving their exam grades should “not be compelled” to accept it until after they have got all their offers of a place.

While some universities offer pupils an unconditional place without a requirement to accept the place, others require pupils to commit to an offer to keep it.

Pupils should also have the option of accepting an unconditional offer as either a “firm or insurance” place, the letter stated.

One of the signatories, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told Schools Week an insurance option would encourage pupils to aim high in exams to see if they could get a better offer.

By waiting to accept an unconditional place until achieving their grades, pupils would again be less incentivised to stop working during year 13, said Barton.

He cited one school where 20 out of 100 pupils had unconditional offers and some stopped bothering even attending school during.

The letter follows universities dropping unconditional places this year after headteachers complained the huge rise in the offers is leading to pupils not achieving their predicted grades.

St Mary’s University announcing last month it had ditched the controversial practice of offering unconditional places. The university admitted that some pupils offered the places then didn’t go on to get their expected grades.

In July, analysis by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service showed a massive 23 per cent of all 18-year-old applicants in England, Northern Ireland and Wales received at least one unconditional offer this year, a rise of 29 per cent on 2017.

These arrangements now make up 7.1 per cent of all offers to 18-year-olds from the three nations, up from 5.4 per cent last year.

Politicians have condemned universities for trying to get “bums on seats” and the funding attached to each pupil.

However the group of leaders did not go as far to call for an outright ban on unconditional offers – claiming any “regulatory intervention would breach the long-established autonomy of institutions over whom they admit to their courses”.

The letter was signed by Dame Rachel de Souza, chief executive at Inspiration Trust with 13 schools in Norfolk and Suffolk, Lucy Heller, chief executive of Ark with 39 schools in London and the south.

Private school sector bosses, who have repeatedly raised the problem of unconditional offers, were also well-represented. Shaun Fenton, chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council and Vivienne Durham, CEO of the Girls’ Schools Association, all signed.

University bosses also put their names to the letter, including Professor Julia Buckingham, vice-chancellor and president at Brunel University London; Professor Edward Byrne, president and principal at King’s College London; Professor Jane Longmore, vice-chancellor at the University of Chichester; Professor Quintin McKellar, vice-chancellor at the University of Hertfordshire; Professor Steve West, vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England and Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Bath.

Other signatories were Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of University of Buckingham; Sir William Atkinson, former head at Phoenix High School; Chris Ramsey, headmaster of Whitgift School and chairman of the joint Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) and Girls’ School Association (GSA) universities committee.