Some universities are recruiting students with unconditional offers during the application process, says the university admissions service Ucas. They are telling students that A-level grade requirements will be dropped completely if they put the university down as their first choice. It comes as new Ucas figures show one-third of applicants aged 18 received an unconditional offer last year.
England's Education Secretary Damian Hinds said the news was "disturbing". He added: "The systematic use of unconditional offers is not in the interest of students and they should not be used just to get people through the door. I expect universities to use them responsibly and where institutions cannot justify the rising numbers being offered, I have made clear to the Office for Students that they should use the full range of powers at their disposal to take action."
Head teachers urged students to resist the "inducement" of such offers and universities to stop making them. Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Geoff Barton said the practice could lead students to choose a course which is not the right one for them.
"We are particularly concerned about students being required to make a university their first choice in return for an unconditional offer. It is essential that students choose the course which is right for them rather than ending up on an unsuitable course which they later regret. We advise them to resist this inducement and urge universities to desist from this practice."
Ucas has analysed the impact of what it calls "conditional unconditional offers" for the first time. It defined conditional unconditional ones as those which are initially made by the university as conditional, then updated to unconditional if the offer is accepted as the student's first (firm) choice.
It also found 34.4% of 18-year-old applicants from England, Wales and Northern Ireland received at least one unconditional offer. In Scotland, the applications process is arranged differently and so are not included in the analysis.