Almost 40% of degree courses are offered unconditionally – what a scandal

I could not believe my eyes when I read in yesterday’s Sunday Times that 40% of universities degree courses are offered unconditionally. This means students can come and study on that course regardless of the grade they obtain at A-level. It was also reported in that newspaper that the entry requirement for Medicine is now being lowered by a couple of universities – including a Russell Group university– Manchester. More on that later, let’s just deal with the issue of large-scale unconditional offers first.

Unconditional offers on a degree course is nothing new, as higher educational institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge, have been doing it for decades.

In 1994, when I was teaching at a very good comprehensive school, one of my students was offered a place on the condition that he obtained a D and an E grade at A-level, in order to gain admission to Cambridge. The young man ended up getting two As and one B grade. He was an exceptionally talented young person and I’m sure, had they offered him three A grades, he would have got them (there was no A* at the time). Now, there was no harm done the young person in question as he was very bright. He passed the special entrance examination at the time and, if for any reason, he had been ill during the exams or there was a family issue and he was not able to prepare and do well in his A-level and ended up with E or D grades, he already had the pedigree to succeed on a demanding university course at the very top university of all – Cambridge.

Admission officers, particularly from the less reputable universities, and mainly on degree courses that employers value very little, are using the tool of an unconditional offer for the wrong reason. It is simply to put “bottoms on seats” and to protect their jobs. Never mind the young person who is getting a debt of about £40k plus. This is a topic on which I have written extensively in the past and it reminds me of the notion of “McJobs” after a degree course.

The reality, as written in that Sunday Times article, is that, a large number of students who get unconditional offers onto a degree course, never finish their degrees. From my observations, those who do usually end up getting a job that does not require a university degree to do – the McJob kind of thing! I like education, and, in fact, I see nothing at all wrong in getting a degree just for the sake of being educated and I think every degree course has its merit; however, I have a question to ask.

Are that young person and their parents – both of whom have made enormous sacrifice and spent several years and an awful lot money in preparing for university, fully aware of the likely outcome at the end of the degree course?

If they have all the information beforehand and have studied the available statistics of the likely destination or career prospect of those who studied certain courses at certain universities – and are still OK with getting tens of thousands of pounds into debt with student loans, and, perhaps, the parents forking out for private education, from primary school to the age of 18 – I’m fine with that.

As I said earlier, philosophically, I think being educated is worth all the hassle and the debt, but I’m not sure how many people in society feel the same – particularly those who are the main stakeholders in this.

I have seen so many very bright young people, who, due to a lack of adequate information or guidance, have achieved very mediocre A-level results and have settled for courses that are next to useless (at least, as some elite institutions see it) at a university that is not that reputable. Many of these young people feel resentful and there is all sorts of talk about injustice and elitism and what have you.

I respect that this is a very complex issue and that prejudices, unfair elitism and injustice exist in society and, in my view, the universities are not immune to those, despite the perceived effort that many of them have made to try to balance things out.

In my view, lowering standards as a way of trying to broaden access to anything – including higher education – is not doing anyone justice. What it leads to is resentments from all sides and a sense of more unfairness.

Please see the concluding part on this and also my comment about lower admission requirements to study Medicine and Engineering in the next article

(This is due to be published on 7th August 2019)