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Seven universities were responsible for a third of all unconditional offers in the UK last year, according to new data that lift the lid on which institutions have been heavily using the controversial practice.
At three universities, at least three-quarters of all offers made to applicants were unconditional, the figures released by Ucas show.
It is the first time that data have been released showing the extent of unconditional offer-making, where school-leavers are offered a place at university on the basis of predicted exam results only and irrespective of what grades they go on to achieve.
The huge growth in such offers – more than a third of 18-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland got at least one offer with an unconditional element last year compared with just 1 per cent in 2013 – has been the subject of increasing criticism.
Particular concerns have been raised about the growing use of “conditional unconditional” offers, where applicants are told that their offer will become unconditional if they select a university as their first choice.
Following a report on the issue last week, the chief executive of England’s higher education regulator the Office for Students, Nicola Dandridge, said that unconditional offers “with strings attached” were “akin to pressure selling”.
The new Ucas data, released on 31 January, show how a small set of universities seemed to be responsible for the bulk of such "conditional unconditional" offers in 2018. Just 20 institutions together made more than 90 per cent of the controversial offers.
Six universities represented half of them, led by Nottingham Trent University (13 per cent of all “conditional unconditional” offers) and also including one Russell Group institution, the University of Birmingham (7 per cent). As a proportion of all offers made by an institution, the University of Roehampton had the highest share that were “conditional unconditional” (66 per cent).
A Nottingham Trent spokesman said that those considered for its unconditional offer scheme had to demonstrate “exceptional academic performance”. Its own monitoring had found that those with unconditional offers went on to attain, on average, “higher grades than students who receive conditional offers”.
Birmingham said its recruitment strategy was “centred on recruiting students who will benefit the most from their time with us whilst minimising the stress associated with securing a university place”. It also said that students with an unconditional offer “do not experience the [school exam] attainment gap seen in other parts of the sector” and "are among our best performing group once they join us”.
And a Roehampton spokeswoman said that it was “determined that all our admissions policies and practices are in the interests of students and compliant with consumer protection legislation” and added that this year 95 per cent of applicants said that they were happy with their experience of applying.
The seven universities that made up a third of all offers with an unconditional element (either conditional unconditional offers or pure unconditional offers) were: Nottingham Trent (7 per cent of all such offers in the sector), the University of Lincoln (5 per cent), Sheffield Hallam University (5 per cent), Birmingham (4 per cent), York St John University (4 per cent), Birmingham City University (4 per cent) and the University of Brighton (4 per cent).
In terms of offers that were purely unconditional, three universities had at least three-quarters of their offers with no strings attached: the University of Suffolk, (84 per cent of offers), York St John (79 per cent) and the University of Bolton (76 per cent).
Suffolk said that its approach reflected its “focus on widening participation and increasing access to higher education, acknowledging an individual’s potential to succeed based on a range of criteria, in addition to predicted grades”.
The release of the data coincided with at least two universities announcing that they would no longer be making unconditional offers.
Bolton said that it would no longer make unconditional offers based on predicted grades.
Kondal Reddy Kandadi, the university’s pro vice-chancellor (academic), said that the increasing use of unconditional offers had “been driven by an aggressively competitive recruitment market”.
“However, we feel strongly that these offers no longer provide the best conditions for our future students to fully meet their potential in the qualifications they are currently studying," Dr Kandadi said. “The emphasis has to be focused on the importance of assessment performance, not only to university entry, but to future employment prospects, professional accreditations and further study.”
The University of Nottingham, where 11 per cent of offers last year had an unconditional element, said that it was ending its “High Achievers” scheme, which made use of unconditional offers. Registrar Paul Greatrix said that “we hope that colleagues across the sector will consider joining the growing number of institutions who are ending this particular practice”.
Elsewhere in the Ucas data release, a section on the gap in the university entry rate between the most advantaged and disadvantaged students show that it has increased at the most selective universities after falling for several years. In 2018 the most advantaged students were 15 times more likely to enter university than the most disadvantaged, up from 14.5 times in 2017.
The release also gives the first snapshot of recruitment for universities for 2018-19, with the figures showing that eight institutions saw acceptances of UK and other European Union undergraduates drop by 15 per cent of more.