According to Graeme Paton of The Telegraph, amid a scramble to recruit Britain's brightest, universities are preparing to award places to students irrespective of their final A-level grades. The practice of "unconditional offers" for large numbers of students starting degrees next year is being revived by a string of leading institutions such as Birmingham, Nottingham, Leicester and Queen Mary, University of London. Places are made available by tutors for candidates who are predicted by their teachers to gain straight As in their final exams. The move is intended to reward students with potential while taking the pressure off teenagers in the final year of the sixth-form. Following the relaxing of tight controls on recruitment by the Coalition, the policy underlines the scale of the competition between universities for the brightest students.
Cash scholarships worth up to £10,000 are being offered by at least 30 universities, notably those ranked outside the traditional elite, in an attempt to sign up students with good A-levels. However, some rival universities have slammed he move towards unconditional offers claiming it undermines the exams system and risks being manipulated by pupils. A senior official at one leading Russell Group university said:
"I am concerned at the attempt to downgrade the importance of A-levels – that is the effect that these changes will have.
"These universities are saying, âIf you make us your firm choice we'll make you an unconditional offer'. That's not in the applicant's best interest.
"Students are pretty smart – if you look at online forums you can see that they have an understanding of what's going on."
The general secretary of the University and College Union, Sally Hunt, said it was understandable that some institutions were now moving towards unconditional offers, but added:
"The continuing shambles over student numbers and the misguided efforts to force a market into higher education has created all sorts of confusion."
Traditionally, universities make offers of places that are conditional on teenagers scoring certain grades when A-level results are published in August. However, many universities are looking closely at unconditional offers without publicizing the move according to experts. Under the new coalition universities have complete freedom to recruit unlimited numbers of British students with good A-levels – an A and two Bs or better – while places remain tightly capped for other candidates.
The unconditional offer system is not without risk, because if students eventually fail to gain top A-levels they will count towards the number of capped places awarded to each institution. Recruiting beyond number controls can lead to a university being fined. Roderick Smith, director of admissions at Birmingham University, said:
"When we decided to make unconditional offers last year we knew that we were taking a leap of faithâ¦ But we were pleased to see that those who received an unconditional offer performed to their potential, with examination results above the average for their subject."
A number of universities are tempting students with scholarships, which are distributed irrespective of household income, in addition to unconditional offers. This includes Anglia Ruskin, Bradford, Bournemouth, Gloucestershire, Salford and Worcester.