Universities that use unconditional offers to pressurise students into accepting places could be fined or even lose their university status, England's higher education watchdog says.
The Office for Students (OfS) compares the indiscriminate use of unconditional offers to pressure selling and says it could be in breach of consumer law. There has been a steep rise in students offered places irrespective of grades. But Sheffield Hallam University said such offers could help some students. It makes hundreds of unconditional offers each year to students with high predicted A-level grades.
And vice-chancellor Chris Husbands said unconditional offers had a place, particularly for young people who "might otherwise not have the opportunity to study at a very high level".
OfS researchers looked at the two different kinds of unconditional offer, those that:
- guarantee a place, with no conditions
- are unconditional only if an applicant makes the university their first choice
Overall, the number of unconditional offers to 18-year-olds rose from 3,000 in 2013 to 117,000 in 2018, while "conditional unconditional" offers rose from zero in 2013 to 66,000 by 2018.
Applicants who accepted an unconditional offer were more likely to miss their predicted grades by two or more grades, the researchers found. Schools and colleges have voiced concerns that students with unconditional offers can underachieve in their exams as they "take their foot off the gas" during revision. OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge said she was concerned about the rapid rise in unconditional offers, "particularly those with strings attached, which are akin to pressure selling".
Overall, 14% of students received unconditional offers last year - but this varied widely between types of institution.