A quarter of students now receive at least one unconditional offer, the latest figures show, despite Government pressure on universities to crack down on the practice.
The proportion of school leavers who were handed at least one university place regardless of their A-level results reached a record high this year, an analysis by the admissions service Ucas shows.
Fierce competition between universities to attract students has seen the number of unconditional offers surge from 2,985 in 2013 to 75,8453 this year, up by more than 2,440 per cent. In the past year alone, there has been a 12 per cent rise.
Ministers have previously warned that universities which hand out soaring numbers of unconditional offers are “undermining the credibility of higher education” and urged them reign in the practise.
Universities have been accused of acting in a “completely irresponsible” manner by handing out so many unconditional offers.
Earlier this year the higher education watchdog warned institutions against handing out “incentivised” offers, where they tell students that their offer will be unconditional but only if they accept it as their first choice university.
The Office for Students (OfS) said that applying “psychological pressure” or “creating an impression of urgency” in applicants’ decision making could be a potential breach of consumer protection law.
Despite the intervention, the proportion of such offers also increased and now makes up 8.3 per cent of all offers, up from 6.6 per cent last year.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that universities are playing a “dangerous game” by ignoring the regulator’s and ministers’ warning over unconditional offers, adding that this may prove to be the “straw that breaks the camel’s back” for autonomy.
“The only way to tackle the issue seriously is by collective action,” he said. “Given all the warnings in the past, one might have expected last year to be the turning point for unconditional offers. I think this will lead to a big new row about university autonomy”.
The OfS published a report in January that examined the impact of unconditional offers on students’ decision making.
It found that applicants who accept an unconditional offer are more likely to miss their predicted A-level grades by two or more grades.
Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the OfS, said he is concerned about the “significant growth” in unconditional offers revealed by the figures.
“We will be monitoring data on the link between unconditional offers, the grades students achieve and their retention in higher education,” he said. “Where we see evidence that the use of unconditional offers has a negative impact on student outcomes of this kind we will investigate and stand ready to intervene.”
The OfS is to launch a major review later this year into the university admissions system, which could see the system overhauled so students only apply after they have their A-level grades.
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said that they are also carrying out an admissions review to ensure offer making practices are “fair and transparent, underpinned by clear criteria and operating in the best interests of students”.
He said that there are “clear benefits” in universities using a variety of different offers, adding: “An important principle of the UK system is that universities decide independently which students they accept.”