The UK’s universities minister has called the rise in unconditional offers to prospective undergraduates “completely irresponsible” after the latest figures showed another jump in the number of applicants receiving them.
Figures released by Ucas on 26 July showed that almost a quarter (22.9 per cent) of 18-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland had received at least one unconditional offer this year. In 2013, this figure was just 1.1 per cent.
Most offers of university places made to 18-year-olds are conditional on them achieving certain grades in their end-of-school exams, the results of which are due next month.
However, increasingly universities have made offers to applicants irrespective of the exam results they go on to achieve.
Much of the increase has come as caps on undergraduate places have been lifted by the government, leading some commentators to suggest the increase is down to institutions trying to secure a greater market share of applicants.
The universities minister, Sam Gyimah, said that universities had to put a brake on unconditional offers and warned he and the new English sector regulator, the Office for Students, were “closely monitoring” the situation.
“The rise in unconditional offers is completely irresponsible to students and universities must start taking a lead by limiting the number they offer,” he said.
“Places at universities should only be offered to those who will benefit from them – and giving out unconditional offers just to put ‘bums on seats’ undermines the credibility of the university system.
“Along with the Office for Students, I am closely monitoring the number being issued and fully expect the regulator to take appropriate action.
“Unconditional offers risk distracting students from the final year of their schooling and swaying their decisions does them a disservice – universities must act in the interest of students, not in filling spaces.”
The Ucas data show that in 2013, there were 2,985 offers recorded as unconditional, accounting for 0.4 per cent of all offers to 18-year-olds from all parts of the UK except Scotland. This year, the number of unconditional offers increased 32 per cent on the 2017 level to 67,915, accounting for 7.1 per cent of all offers.
Unsurprisingly, an increasing number of applicants are accepting such unconditional offers as their “firm choice” of university. In 2013, there were 1,710 unconditional firm choices but by this year the figure had reached more than 42,000, an increase of 40 per cent on 2017.
The Ucas report is unusual in publishing statistics on unconditional offers in the middle of the applications cycle, possibly showing the growing sensitivity of the issue. The figures do not cover Scotland because of its separate system of Scottish Higher qualifications.
The University and College Union said the time had come for a “complete overhaul” of admissions to remove pre-exam unconditional offers by moving to a system where students apply after receiving their results.
General secretary Sally Hunt said: “The proliferation of unconditional offers is detrimental to the interests of students and it is time the UK joined the rest of the world in basing university offers on actual achievements instead on guesswork.
“Unconditional offers have made a mockery of exams and put students under enormous pressure to make a snap decision about their future. They can also encourage talented students to take their foot off the gas, instead of striving for excellence.”
However, Universities UK defended the use of such offers, with chief executive Alistair Jarvis saying that “used appropriately” they could “help students and ensure that universities are able to respond flexibly to the range of applicants seeking places”.
“Such offers can be made in a number of circumstances,” he said, including to applicants already with qualifications, with “extensive practical and relevant experience” for specific courses or “to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds with the potential to do well at university with additional support”.
“Universities UK will continue to work with Ucas to monitor trends and any impact unconditional offer-making might have on student attainment. It is simply not in the interests of universities to take students without the potential to succeed,” Mr Jarvis added.