University standards under question as quarter of teenagers handed unconditional offers regardless of grades

Posted on: 2018-07-25 23:30:00

Universities have increased the number of unconditional offers made to school-leavers by nearly a third, prompting fears that institutions are sacrificing standards in a bid to attract students and bring in cash.

Almost a quarter of 18-year-olds have been handed at least one guaranteed place on a degree course regardless of the A-level grades they have secured this summer, new Ucas data shows.

The rise has prompted calls for the admissions system to be overhauled, as critics say they risk distracting students during their final year at school while putting them under pressure to make quick decisions.

Sam Gyimah, universities minister, branded the rise "irresponsible" and said institutions that hand out unconditional offers to just put "bums on seats" undermine the credibility of the university system.

The Ucas data reveals that 67,915 unconditional offers have been made to 18-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland this year, up from 51,615 in 2017 – a rise of 32 per cent.

Overall, 23 per cent of 18-year-old university applicants – some 58,385 in total – from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, have received at least one unconditional offer this year.

This is up from just 1.1 per cent – 2,570 applicants – in 2013, and a 29 per cent rise compared to last year.

In total, 7.1 per cent of all offers made to students this year were unconditional, the data shows.

Unconditional offers have traditionally been made in certain circumstances, such as to mature students who already have the qualifications needed for their university place or for those applying for creative arts courses who may have submitted portfolios or auditioned for places.

But there are signs that these offers are being used by universities competing to recruit students who have to pay up to £9,250 a year in tuition fees. There is no cap on the number of students a university can admit and, at the same time, the UK's 18-year-old population is falling.

Mr Gyimah added: “The rise in unconditional offers is completely irresponsible to students and universities must start taking a lead, by limiting the number they offer.

“Places at universities should only be offered to those who will benefit from them, and giving out unconditional offers just to put ‘bums on seats’ undermines the credibility of the university system.

“Along with the Office for Students, I am closely monitoring the number being issued and fully expect the regulator to take appropriate action.

“Unconditional offers risk distracting students from the final year of their schooling, and swaying their decisions does them a disservice – universities must act in the interest of students, not in filling spaces.”

Helen Thorne, Ucas' director of external relations, said: “Students should take the time to carefully think about all their options fully before accepting an unconditional offer. Information and advice on the Ucas website highlights the key points students need to think about before accepting any offer.

“While unconditional offers are made for a number of reasons, we believe that universities should always emphasise to students the importance of completing their studies to the best of their abilities.

“This will help make sure they’re well prepared for their degree course, and for future employment.”

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "While there has been a steady growth in the number of unconditional offers made, they still account for a small proportion (7.1 per cent) of all offers made by universities."

He added: "Unconditional offers, when used appropriately, can help students and ensure that universities are able to respond flexibly to the range of applicants seeking places.

"Universities UK will continue to work with Ucas to monitor trends and any impact unconditional offer-making might have on student attainment. It is simply not in the interests of universities to take students without the potential to succeed."

Source: Independent

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