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Just a handful of universities in the Russell Group of UK research intensives are making unconditional offers to prospective undergraduates before they get their exam results, according to a survey by Times Higher Education.
More than half of the group said in response to Freedom of Information requests that they did not use such offers, suggesting that their use is still mainly being driven by less selective universities in the sector.
The huge growth in the use of unconditional offers – where applicants are offered a place irrespective of the end-of-school results they may get – has been called “completely irresponsible” by the UK universities minister, Sam Gyimah, who said that the offers risked unduly swaying students and distracting from their final year of schooling.
Almost a quarter (22.9 per cent) of 18-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland received at least one unconditional offer this year, up from 1.1 per cent in 2013. This year's total of 67,915 unconditional offers was up 32 per cent year-on-year.
However, some critics have suggested that the boom is simply a product of England’s uncapping of undergraduate numbers, which they claim has forced less selective universities to use unconditional offers to ensure that they fill places.
THE submitted FoI requests to the 24 universities in the Russell Group asking for data from the past five years on how many applicants had been made unconditional offers before their exam results were known.
Just four institutions confirmed that they made such offers and provided data while 14 responded to say it was their policy not to use them for applicants that had predicted results only. The six other members of the group either failed to respond to the FoI request in time or refused to release the information.
Of the four that provided data on their use, only one – Queen Mary University of London – saw a large increase in the use of unconditional offers in the current applications cycle, from 159 in 2017 to 468 this year. However, this still formed a small proportion, about 2 per cent, of total offers to applicants who had yet to sit exams.
Queen Mary, which pointed out that its student body was “more diverse than many Russell Group universities”, said it made unconditional offers “only on the basis of interviews, where we have the opportunity to assess an applicant’s potential and take more fully into account the context of their educational background, interest in their chosen subject and reasons for wanting to come to Queen Mary”.
Another Russell Group university known to make use of unconditional offers is the University of Birmingham, which has a detailed page on its website explaining its scheme. Birmingham refused THE’s FoI request, saying the information was available from Ucas, the UK’s admissions body. Until recently the data were only available for a large fee, but Ucas now plans to make the information publicly available over the winter.
A Birmingham spokesman said it used a “range of information” in making unconditional offers and its criteria for deciding them were “reviewed regularly”. He added that predicted grades – which form the basis of conditional offer making – were “no longer as reliable as they once were and this has an impact on universities looking to make reliable offers, and students looking for the right course and university for them”.