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Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

Article by Professor Graham Galbraith, Vice-Chancellor.

When the self-identified elite universities used to make ‘two E’ offers no-one worried that it made it easier for old school tie-based admissions. And no-one now worries that independent schools advise their pupils to apply for courses at prestigious universities where demand for places is lower and so, inevitably, entry requirements less stringent.

But when other universities behave in effectively the same way commentators – some of whom were the recipient of two E offers themselves – rush to judgement. For some reason they think that only the so-called elite universities have the discretion and judgement to make responsible unconditional offers; and that other universities will, to adapt a quote from Blackadder goes Forth, make offers to those who will end up “breaking wind in the palaces of the mighty”.

This is wholly unfair. This year the University of Portsmouth is running its first major unconditional offer scheme. The basis on which we are making unconditional offers is exactly the same basis on which we make any offer: the potential to benefit from what we provide. We make an unconditional offer at the point we conclude we have learned enough about a student to know that they have the ambition, potential and commitment to flourish on their chosen course.

Sometimes we make the decision because their predicted grades match or exceed our course requirements (as determined by our academics). On other occasions we also take account of GCSE grades, personal statements and, for some programmes, interviews.

Once a student has accepted an unconditional offer we give them access to our academic support systems including our extensive online learning platform. We aim to help students’ transition to the University’s learning environment as well as provide practical support for their studies at school or college. For teenagers at the moment of transition to adulthood, these are very valuable forms of support.

Moreover, in an age of increasing mental health problems among the young as well as a substantial rise in ‘perfectionism’ (the ‘combination of excessively high personal standards and overly harsh self-criticism’) we believe that the sense of security an unconditional offer provides can be extremely important.

Inevitably there are some concerns. Schools and parents can legitimately fear that unconditional offers can lead to easing off and under-performance by some students. There is some evidence for this. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. With imagination a solution is available. Any student to whom the University of Portsmouth makes an unconditional offer and who achieves their predicted grades is awarded a Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarship – which is worth up to £1000.

Universities should monitor their schemes. How do students with unconditional offers perform at university? Are they more likely to drop-out? Do they need additional support? We will monitor our own scheme – as I am pretty sure all universities do. We have no interest in doing otherwise.

When the evidence does come in universities must interrogate it critically. But until the evidence appears, we can reasonably expect a little more from commentators than filling the gap with good old-fashioned snobbery and prejudice.

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