Unconditional offers and two-year degrees? Our profit-driven university system is broken

Universities have a clear motivation to “pressure sell” unconditional offers: more students means more fee income. 

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This year I have been tutoring A-Level Maths students at a school in Hackney. All are currently predicted to get Cs. All have at least one unconditional offer from a university.

There are two types of unconditional offer: those made on the condition that students will make that university their first choice, and those handed out indiscriminately. Both are problematic: preying on students with little experience of navigating university applications – and often with few adults they can turn to for advice.

Last week, the Office for Students (OfS) warned universities against “pressure selling” – making unconditional offers to school leavers. Since the coalition government lifted the cap on student numbers in 2014, the number of unconditional offers has ballooned, rising from 3,000 in 2013, to 117,000 in 2017.

For universities, the motivation to pressure sell is clear: more students means more student fee income. As Amatey Doku, NUS vice president tells me, successive governments have built a system that has “created a race for whichever institutions can attract the most students and thus bag their fee income.”

Unconditional offers target kids who are usually the first of their family to apply to university. Students like those I tutor – all people of colour, all working class – are the kids who helped their parents choose a broadband provider, who hold down a part-time job at H&M while completing their A-Levels.

It’s hard work. My tutees often do something they call “Overtime FC” – coming into school early, and continuing to work long after school finishes. For these students, university will be far from a three-year rollercoaster.

But pressure selling isn’t the only way in which students are being pressured. Earlier this week, MPs voted to back £11,000 fees for two-year degrees. As Chris Skidmore, the universities minister, put it: “For thousands of future students wanting a faster pace of learning and a faster route into the workplace at a lower overall cost, two-year degrees will transform their choices.”

In reality, a two-year degree is a degree without a summer holiday. Instead of the three-month summer break that students on a three-year course can take, those on two-year courses will be permitted five weeks off. The workload, in theory, should be the same.

But theory and practice are two different things. Who would teach over the summer? The British higher education system is set up so professors and researchers do most of the heavy lifting with their research during the summer break. 

And for students, the condensed two-year degree doesn’t seem ideal, either. Jack Cable, a third-year student in Neuroscience at UCL, says “we joke about it, but the idea that first year doesn’t count is actually very helpful.”

For students, the first year of university is when you learn to live independently. It’s when you take time to join clubs and societies, develop new interests, and grow as a person – endeavours that would be made impossible if you’re always trying to meet deadlines that count towards your final degree result.

While I was studying as an undergraduate at UCL, the university became the largest in the country. Now it counts over 40,000 students. Professors would complain they had to set fewer essays, as they didn’t have enough time to mark them. Assessments were completed via online quizzes. Lab experiments were shared between multiple people, affording students less time to practise their skills. Tutorials were limited and lectures were sped through; it was all about getting through the content in a way that was as efficient as possible.

This took a toll on my mental health. I was stressed all of the time. If this experience was condensed into two years, rather than three, one can only imagine that these effects would be exacerbated.

Already, universities are struggling to cope with increasing mental health problems. Between June 2017 and June 2018, 95 students across the UK killed themselves. The university where I study now – Imperial College London – has advised students since December that it does not have any counselling appointments available until March.

My students in Hackney don’t know any of this yet.

While in theory offering a two-year degree sounds like a good idea, as do unconditional offers, both abandon the progressive ideals of higher education for something far more cynical – and potentially damaging.  

Jason Murugesu is a postgraduate student in science communication at Imperial College London, and a former Wellcome Scholar at the New Statesman.