Almost one in 10 admissions staff says that their university is making unconditional offers to students over the phone as the battle to recruit undergraduates heats up, a study has revealed.
The findings of the report by the University and College Union, which surveyed more than 2,100 staff involved in admissions, are likely to raise questions about the fairness and transparency of unconditional offers, whose use grew fourfold last year.
The offers, in which students are admitted on the basis of their predicted grades alone, were described as “grossly unfair”, “irresponsible” and “anticompetitive” in comments submitted to the UCU report, published on 18 June.
One admissions officer called the offers a “betrayal of school teachers who are trying to encourage their students to engage with school work”.
Unconditional offers put “undue pressure” on applicants to take up a place, said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, which is likely to seek a ban on their use this summer.
“We have heard of incidents where children are being phoned up and told that their offer will be made unconditional if they accept it as a firm choice,” Ms Hunt said. “What is the point of published entry requirements if they don’t apply to all students?”
According to the UCU survey, 27 per cent of respondents reported that their institution made unconditional offers, while 41 per cent said that their university did not. The remainder did not know.
Many respondents called for the admissions body Ucas to ban the practice, arguing that it offers an unfair advantage to some institutions. One respondent stated that “final application decisions should be made on achievement, not undetermined outcomes”.
Others claim that the practice gives an unfair edge to pupils from private schools, who are more likely to be predicted (and to achieve) A grades at A level, while some respondents described a wider “push for posh” students to raise their institution’s league table performance.
One respondent told the survey that the practice “directly works against the fair access agenda by discriminating against applicants with non-traditional backgrounds who are very unlikely to have uniformly high GCSE grades”. It also favoured pupils whose “teachers are used to the Ucas system and can read between the lines and make predictions accordingly”, he added.
Just one in 40 offers made to 18-year-olds in the 2014 applications cycle was unconditional, according to Ucas. Current indications, however, are that the use of such offers has risen by a similar amount to last year, with the total share of offers with an unconditional element likely to double in this admissions cycle, a Ucas spokesman said.
A Ucas analysis of institutions that offered large numbers of unconditional offers last year showed that they “did not appear to become materially more attractive to applicants when it came to choosing between offers”, he added.
The UCU survey also found that seven in 10 admissions staff backed a move to post-qualifications applications (PQA) – which has been rejected by the academy on multiple occasions over the past 20 years.
Calling for a “radical overhaul”, Ms Hunt said that a PQA system would “ensure students can accurately make the most of their potential [and] remove the pressure from schools to overestimate students’ marks in an effort to ensure they do not miss out”.