UK universities’ growing willingness to make unconditional offers to students is leading schools to increasingly over-predict the grades that their pupils are likely to achieve, an academic leader has warned.
John Brewer, pro vice-chancellor (global engagement) at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, said that there was a growing risk that students would end up on courses on which they struggled, although he also predicted that the rapid rise in the use of unconditional offers seen in recent years would soon tail off.
Data released in Ucas’ End of Cycle Report 2017 showed that the number of unconditional offers received by 18-year-olds from England, Wales and Northern Ireland increased by 40.2 per cent year-on-year during the latest admissions cycle, up to 51,615. One in six such applicants now receives at least one unconditional offer.
Professor Brewer said that he saw “many schools now over-predicting grades so that their students stand a better chance of getting an unconditional offer…this is happening at all attainment levels now that unconditionals are more widely available”.
Ucas data show that while, historically, it was the highest-achieving students who were likely to get unconditional offers, applicants predicted to get ABB to BBC at A level now have the strongest chance of getting them.
“There is a tendency for schools to predict students who may be [likely to get] CCC, BBC, in the hope that they will get into an institution,” Professor Brewer said.
The rapid growth in the use of unconditional offers is seen as the result of intense competition between universities hoping to meet their student recruitment targets.
Professor Brewer said that schools were under pressure from parents who wanted their children to get into more selective institutions but warned that over-predicting students’ ability was “detrimental” to their educational prospects.
“The last thing we want is for students to be over-predicted to the extent that they end up with a cohort where they are going to struggle or a course where they will struggle,” he said. “Schools need to make sure that they are doing what is right for their students, not what might be right for parental pressure to try to get students into higher-ranking universities.”
There are also concerns that the increased use of unconditional offers will lead to more students taking their foot off the pedal before their final exams, and Ucas research has found that applicants holding such offers were 23 per cent more likely to fall short of their predicted grades than students with conditional offers.
Professor Brewer said that this could mean that the fashion for making large numbers of unconditional offers may be short-lived. Another factor was that students with unconditional offers were increasingly willing to reject them at the last minute and to enter clearing instead.
“Entry tariff has an impact on some of the league tables, and universities won’t want to find their entry tariff being pulled down because students with unconditional offers aren’t getting the grades that they were predicted to get,” he said. “I think we have potentially reached a peak and I think universities may start to look at the data and decide the benefits of unconditional offers are not as great as they thought, and we may see [the use of] them being reduced.”