The government has called on universities to halt “unethical” admissions practices, accusing them of adopting pressure-selling tactics that “back students into a corner” and prevent them from considering potentially better alternatives.
The education secretary, Damian Hinds, wants to crack down on “conditional unconditional offers” by which a university guarantees a student a place regardless of A-level results but only if they put the institution as their first option.
He is writing to 23 universities that made such offers last year, urging them to eliminate the practice, which he says is damaging the global reputation of universities in England and may be in breach of consumer protection laws.
The government is also concerned about the negative impact unconditional offers are having on attainment. Data published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) last year showed students who accepted unconditional offers were proportionally 7% more likely to miss their predicted A-levels by two grades than those with conditional offers.
A notice from the Department for Education names and shames the institutions that recruited students using conditional unconditional offers in 2018, although several later said they had already stopped the practice.
The DfE welcomed any change but said the education secretary would be writing to them nonetheless. Hinds said: “It is simply unacceptable for universities to adopt pressure-selling tactics, which are harming students’ grades, in order to fill places. It is not what I expect to see from our world-class higher education institutions.”
In recent years, there has been a huge increase in the use of unconditional offers as universities compete to get the best students.
Last year, more than 87,000 students were given some form of unconditional offer before they sat their final exams. This was more than a third (34.4%) of 18-year-old applicants from England, Northern Ireland and Wales, compared to 1.1% five years earlier.
In 2018, Nottingham Trent University (NTU) made 8,380 conditional unconditional offers, representing 39.9% of all its offers. An NTU spokesperson said the university’s unconditional offer scheme is targeted at high-performing applicants. “Nottingham Trent reviews its recruitment policy every year. We will consider the points made in the secretary of state’s letter when deciding our approach for the 2020 recruitment cycle.”
The University of Roehampton made 1,940 conditional unconditional offers, representing almost two-thirds of those made in 2018. A spokesperson said the university told Ucas last month it no longer makes such offers.
The University of Birmingham, a member of the prestigious Russell Group, is also on the DfE list. A spokesperson defended the use of unconditional offers. “We closely monitor the progression of students and those students with an unconditional offer achieve good honours at the same rate as their peers, often better.
“Applicants are not pressured to accept unconditional offers; rather unconditional offers form a small part of a wider and well-developed admissions strategy that has a firm focus on supporting students to make the right choice for them. We continue to review and refine our strategy and remain confident that our offer-making practice is legal and ethical.”
There is broader concern about the way in which some universities are getting students through their doors. The higher education regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), is to review how well admissions practices serve students and how they can be improved.
The universities minister, Chris Skidmore, said: “I know there is a place for unconditional offers but I expect universities to use them responsibly. They must not be used to place students in a position where they are forced to make choices before they know their respective options.”
Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of OfS, said: “It is not in students’ interests to push them into decisions that may not be right for them, and admissions practices are clearly not working if they are having a negative impact on students’ choices or outcomes.”
Gordon Marsden, the shadow higher education minister, said: “The rise of unconditional offers is a direct result of the Tories’ marketised approach to higher education, which has piled pressure on institutions to recruit students. This situation is now worsening: future higher education income is threatened, and there is a feeding frenzy of competition for students now.”
Meanwhile, the credit rating agency Moody’s predicted greater financial pressures for universities over the next three years because of rising staff costs, due to pay rises and pensions, and falling revenue from tuition fees, which are not index-linked.