West Midlands universities criticised for handing out thousands of unconditional offers
Universities across the region have come under fire after handing out thousands of unconditional offers to students last year.
The University of Wolverhampton, Staffordshire University and the University of Birmingham handed out 8,000 unconditional offers between them in 2018 compared to just 358 in 2013.
The Office for Students says unconditional offers, which mean students are guaranteed a place at university regardless of exam marks, cause students to miss their predicted A-level marks by two grades or more, while the watchdog has also warned that universities could be breaching consumer law with their indiscriminate use of the offers.
The University of Wolverhampton made unconditional offers to 1,315 students last year. That compares to just five in 2013. Unconditional offers made up 20 per cent of the 6,670 places awarded at the university last year, according to UCAS data, compared to 0.08 per cent in 2013.
Of the 4,795 offers Staffordshire University handed out to students in 2018, 1,920 – or 40 per cent – were unconditional. This compares to 20, or 0.04 per cent, in 2013.
In 2018, the University of Birmingham made unconditional offers to 4,765 students, granting them a place irrespective of their final grades. They made 330 such offers in 2013.
Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of education watchdog the Office for Students (OfS), said: "We are concerned about the rapid rise in unconditional offers, particularly those with strings attached which are akin to pressure selling.
"The risk is that this places undue pressure on students to reach a decision which may not be in their best interests.
"For a number of universities this data will make for uncomfortable reading. Where they cannot justify the offers, they should reconsider their approach."
Some offers are only unconditional if the student commits to making the university their first choice.
These offers are also known as 'conditional unconditional'. The University of Wolverhampton, which has major campuses in Wolverhampton. Telford and Walsall, made 25 such offers last year, just two per cent of its unconditional offers. However Staffordshire made 1,875 offers, a 98 per cent of all its unconditional offers. The county university, which has campuses in Stafford and Shrewsbury, has now vowed to outlaw this practice.
Sue Reece, Staffordshire University's pro vice-chancellor, said: “We make unconditional offers where we are satisfied that the information provided to us by the applicant, predicted grades and performance at interview, is deserving of such an offer.
"We need to consider our diverse student community, many of whom are mature and who may not have come via traditional routes, and will also take into account life and work experience, and an aptitude for personal development, when making such offers.
"At Staffordshire University we have considered applicant feedback and will no longer offer ‘conditional unconditional’ offers as we want our students to be clear that we have properly assessed their offer."
Education Secretary Damian Hinds called the steep rise in unconditional offers "alarming" and has asked the OfS to take action against institutions which could not justify making unconditional offers.
He said: "I have been clear that the steep rise in unconditional offers across a wide range of subjects is disturbing.
"But what is particularly alarming in the UCAS data is the huge variation across institutions in their use of unconditional offers.
"That's why I am urging universities to use their offers responsibly, and not simply use unconditional offers to get students through the door."
The OfS said it was "prepared to intervene" in cases where unconditional offers are negatively impacting students' wellbeing.
A spokesman for the University of Birmingham said: “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. Our strategy includes a far greater proportion of conditional and contextual offers and is centred on recruiting students who will benefit the most from their time with us whilst minimising the stress associated with securing a University place.
“We know that students in receipt of an unconditional offer from the University of Birmingham do not experience the attainment gap seen in other parts of the sector and those students accepting an unconditional offer are among our best performing group once they join us.
“In addition to reducing anxiety around exams, we track student retention data so we know that having an unconditional offer has no bearing on the likelihood of a student dropping out of their course."
James Allen, from the University of Wolverhampton, said: "Like many universities, the University of Wolverhampton issues a range of conditional and unconditional offers to students.
"We pride ourselves on being the University of Opportunity, providing a route into to higher education more often than not to students who may be the first in their families to go to university or to mature learners who are returning to education later in life. Many of our students also come to us through applying directly.
"The vast majority of our students come to us through receiving a conditional offer based upon achieving set entry qualifications. We have trialled the use of unconditional offers for applicants with high predicted grades for select courses. We also provide unconditional offers for students who already hold the necessary qualification standards, like mature students.
"When we make an offer to any student we take into account a range of factors including prior qualifications, a portfolio, performance and most importantly experience. In some cases it will follows an assessment, an interview or an audition. We take into account the whole student not just qualifications.
"Our aim is to provide opportunity and help people in our communities transform their lives through education."