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Ucas warns surge in unconditional university offers means students may take 'foot off the gas'

Exclusive: The head of the admissions service says the sector must have an ‘open and honest’ debate about the issue

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Sunday 04 March 2018 22:08 GMT
Students are being offered more unconditional offers as universities compete for places
Students are being offered more unconditional offers as universities compete for places (Getty)

Education bosses have called for an urgent rethink on universities offering “unconditional offers” to students following a massive surge in the number of places being given out regardless of final exam grades.

Clare Marchant, head of the universities and colleges admissions service (Ucas), said the sector needed to have an “open and honest” debate about the issue after figures showed a 40 per cent rise in unconditional offers received by school-leavers last year was a “concern”.

Last year, more than 50,000 students were offered unconditional places, raising fears universities were using the practise to secure student fees of more than £9,000 a year, to the detriment of some pupils.

“I think the sector having an open and honest discussion about the impact of unconditional [offers] is really important,” Ms Marchant told The Independent. “[Some universities] are using it in an across-the-board way and that is of probably of the greatest concern.”

Her comments come after concerns were raised by Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Select Committee, who said he was “hugely concerned” by the issue.

Last night, he urged universities minister Sam Gymiah to look again at the trend, which he accused of “dumbing down” standards.

Mr Gymiah warned last week that a growth in unconditional offers could undermine the “excellence” of universities across the country.

The minister said institutions should not make unconditional offers as a way of “sidestepping” the key criteria used when selecting whether people will succeed at university.

Unconditional offers are not limited to vocational subjects at less prestigious universities. Computer science and biological sciences are among the subjects with the highest proportions of unconditional offers being given out, a recent report from the universities admissions service shows.

Ms Marchant warned students not to forget the importance of A-level grades and urged them not to rush into accepting unconditional offers that might not be right.

She said: “Our advice to students is two-fold. First, keep your foot on the gas because those A-levels and other qualifications stay with you for life.

“You will have them on your CV when you are 40-plus and applying for a job.

“Second, don’t make the choice on the back of an unconditional. Think about what choice you would have made anyway.”

The number of unconditional offers received by 18-year-olds from England, Northern Ireland and Wales rose by 40 per cent in a year – from 36,825 in 2016 to 51,615 in 2017, Ucas’s annual report revealed in December last year.

The rapid rise of unconditional offers has come as universities compete to fill uncapped places on £9,250-a-year courses. “It is a buyer’s market and students are in the driving seat and therefore with no limit on numbers, universities want them and this is one way to get them,” Ms Marchant said.

School-leavers with predicted A-level grades of BBB or ABB were more likely to receive an unconditional offer than those predicted AAA this year, the latest Ucas report found.

Ms Marchant, who was appointed as chief executive of Ucas last year, said she’d “keep an eye” on the trend of unconditional offers being offered at lower predicted grades than before.

Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Universities need to understand that making unconditional offers to students on the basis of predicted grades is not in the best interests of these young people.

“It can lead to students being less focused on their A-levels because they feel their university place is in the bag. They then attain a lower grade than they are capable of achieving and this can later become a significant problem for them if a prospective future employer takes A-level grades into account in their selection process.”

He added: “We urge universities not to make unconditional offers on the basis of predicted grades, and advise students against choosing a course on the basis of an unconditional offer and to ensure they find the university and course that best suits them.”

The Commons Education Select Committee is currently looking at the issue as part of a value-for-money inquiry into universities and higher education. And in December last year, Roger Taylor, the chair of exams regulator Ofqual, admitted that the rise was “concerning” after MPs on the committee raised their own concerns about the negative impact of the trend.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), agreed that the “jump” in unconditional offers needed to be watched closely. He said: “Taking your foot off the gas just because you have an unconditional offer is a very bad idea.

“We also need to remember that universities and students lose out when students are unhappy and then drop out.”

A Russell Group spokesperson insisted that all offers made at their universities were based on a detailed assessment of an applicant’s academic record.

“Some of our universities make unconditional offers to a small proportion of exceptional applicants. In many cases, these students will already hold A-levels or other higher qualifications and therefore will have met the academic entry requirements,” the spokesperson added.

A spokesperson for Universities UK said: “Unconditional offers account for a very small proportion of all offers made by universities.

“They tend to go to mature applicants who already have qualifications, and to applicants with extensive practical and relevant experience for courses such as fine art or journalism.

“They can also be awarded where evidence suggests applicants are clearly on track to exceed the required entry grades, and to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds with the potential to do well at university with additional support.

“It is simply not in the interests of universities to take students without the potential to succeed at university.”

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