Universities must stop making unconditional offers to students with strings attached, the Education Secretary has said.
Gavin Williamson condemned the use of “conditional unconditional offers”, saying there is no place for them, and they can limit disadvantaged teenagers from going to the “very best academic institutions” possible.
His comments come amid growing concerns about the practice, in which universities make a conditional offer to a student (meaning they have to get particular results in their A-levels or other qualifications) and then upgrade this to unconditional (meaning there are no grade requirements) if the youngster accepts the institution as their first choice.
In his first major speech as Education Secretary, Mr Williamson also warned that grade inflation has become more entrenched in higher education.
And he told university chiefs at the Universities UK (UUK) conference in Birmingham that while he respects the autonomy of the sector, he also needs to safeguard its reputation.
Mr Williamson said that the number of unconditional offers in general has “shot up”, with nearly 76,000 made this year compared to under 3,000 in 2013.
He told vice-chancellors: “I’m delighted that some universities have already scrapped making so-called conditional unconditional offers. I hope, and I expect, that the rest are going to follow suit.”
He added that reviews of admissions by UUK and the universities regulator, the Office for Students (OfS) are “an opportunity for the sector to get its house in order, perhaps by agreeing a minimum predicted grade threshold or a maximum proportion of students who may be offered one”.
Speaking after, he told reporters: “I don’t think there’s any place for conditional unconditional offers at all.
“I can’t see why any institution should be offering it, because there’s a lot of evidence to point out it’s sometimes those youngsters from the… it sometimes limits youngsters from the most disadvantaged backgrounds from actually going to the very best academic institution that they possibly could do, and I don’t want to see that at all.
“Simply the explosion in numbers, there’s nothing to justify that increase in numbers and we want to see that coming down.”
Official figures show that 22.9% of 18-year-old university applicants from England, Wales and Northern Ireland received at least one unconditional offer in 2018.
In January, the OfS warned universities and colleges that indiscriminate use of unconditional offers is akin to pressure selling and could put them in breach of consumer law.
The Education Secretary also told the conference that universities’ “hard-won” reputation for excellence will be at risk if they do not address issues such as grade inflation.
“Grade inflation has become more entrenched. When I was at university you could count the number of students on my course who got firsts on one hand. I’m sad to report that I wasn’t one of them,” the Secretary of State said.
“In 1997 when I graduated, 50% of students gained a first or 2.1. Last year, 80% of students did so.”
He added: “I want you to know that I will always speak up for your autonomy, I know that it is what helps foster the brilliance of our teaching and our research.
“But I also need to safeguard our reputation so that everyone knows that they can trust the system, so we need to work together on some of these issues.
“If we don’t tackle them, your hard-worn reputation for excellence will be undermined. Worse still there is a risk that employers will begin to lose faith in grades and foreign students will think twice about investing their time and money in studying here.”
Mr Williamson told reporters that he expects the Government to respond to the Augar review of post-18 education “before the end of winter”.
The independent review, commissioned by the Government, set out a number of recommendations, including for tuition fees to be slashed to £7,500 and maintenance grants to be reintroduced.
Mr Williamson is due to write to the OfS next week, setting out his priorities for higher education for the year, including issues like conditional unconditional offers.
A UUK spokesman said: “Universities UK recently launched a review of admissions, involving Ucas, students, and senior representatives from schools, colleges and universities.
“This is a wide-ranging review and we will be considering all aspects of the offer-making process as part of it.
“It will collect evidence on how the current admissions system works, identify the challenges relating to offer-making, and recommend best practice – ensuring we are absolutely clear on the evidence base and determining what is in the interests of students and what is not.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We agree with Gavin Williamson that universities should stop the misuse of unconditional offers.
“The practice of making these offers on condition that the candidate makes the university their first choice is not in the best interests of students.
“It demotivates students when they are studying for A-levels and other important qualifications and encourages them to choose courses which are not necessarily the best option for them.
“The explosion in unconditional offers is obviously driven by marketing rather than academic considerations.”