A record number of 18-year olds have received offers from universities that guarantee them an undergraduate place regardless of their school exam grades, raising concerns over competition for students as financial strains grow in higher education.
The Universities and Colleges Admission Service (Ucas), which co-ordinates offers and applications, said more than a quarter of students from England, Northern Ireland and Wales had for the first time in 2019 had received a “conditional unconditional” offer. This grants them a firm place if they accept a university as their first choice ahead of completing their final school exams. Applicants from Scotland were not included.
The practice has been condemned by regulators, policymakers and officials, including teaching unions and the government, over concerns that students who receive such offers frequently perform less well in their exams and may be lured on to courses that do not best suit their abilities.
However, it has become a way for universities to generate predictability and thus student fees after a substantial period of debt-financed expansion and as the battle to fill places intensifies.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, the university regulator, said: “Unconditional offers have a place in university admissions. But we remain concerned by the continuing rise in so-called conditional unconditional offers, which risk pressuring students’ into making decisions that may not be in their best interests.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, described the trend as “infuriating”. “This practice has more to do with the frenetic scramble to put bums on seats than the best interests of students,” he said. “It results in many young people taking their foot off the pedal in their A levels, doing less well than they should, and potentially damaging their future employment prospects.”
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, warned in a speech to higher education leaders in September that there was “nothing to justify” the explosion in such offers and called on them to ““get their house in order”.
Ucas said in its annual review of applications that nearly 65,000 students received at least one such offer this year, up from just over 53,000 last year, representing a jump from 20.9 per cent to 25.1 per cent. Communications and media had the highest proportion of conditional unconditional offers, followed by humanities and liberal arts subjects.
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, an association representing higher education institutions, stressed that the sector was conducting a review of “fair admissions” to ensure practices were “fair, transparent and operating in the best interests of students”. It is due to report next spring.
Clare Marchant, chief executive of Ucas, stressed that despite the surge in offers, students were more discriminating and only 20.6 per cent of those applicants receiving them had accepted conditional unconditional places, down from 25.6 per cent in 2014.
She stressed that unconditional offers were “a complex issue” and that “their impact on attainment needs to be highlighted, though this must be seen alongside their role in widening participation activities and benefits to students’ mental health”.
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