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Unconditional university offers hit record high, says UCAS

By Lewis Pennock, PA

Unconditional offers to university and higher education applicants have hit a record high, with one in four now receiving them, figures show.

Some 63,190 applicants were given an unconditional offer in the 2019 cycle, according to an analysis by Ucas, which handles applications.

As a proportion, the figure marks a 2% increase on last year, which also set a record, when 58,385 prospective students in England, Northern Ireland and Wales were given the offers.

Some critics say the method can cause students to take their foot off the gas as they approach A-levels and other exams.

The latest study, published in a Ucas report on Tuesday and focusing on 18-year-old applicants, found 7.8% (75,845) of all offers were unconditional, compared with just 0.4% in 2013.

A "substantial" rise was also seen in controversial "conditional unconditional" offers, which are made conditional if the applicant makes the university or institution their firm choice.

This year, these were given to 25% (63,830) of applicants, compared with 20% (52,145) last year.

Responding to the report, a Department for Education (DfE) spokesman said: "What sets the UK's world-leading universities apart is our relentless focus on quality and this must be protected.

"There is a place for unconditional offers, however this data highlights the continued rise in their use and we know some students who accept unconditional offers can be more likely to miss their predicted A-level grades.

"We also have particular concerns about the use of conditional unconditional offers, which can potentially pressure students into accepting a place which may not be the best option for them."

Clare Marchant, chief executive of Ucas, said use of unconditional offers "remains a complex issue and continues to evolve".

"We look forward to working with the Office for Students (OfS) and Universities UK (UUK) on their respective upcoming admissions practice reviews, to deliver meaningful recommendations," she added.

A total of 80% of all applicants for the period were given some form of offer, either conditional or unconditional.

The report also said nearly two in five (38%) were given an offer with an "unconditional component" - defined by Ucas as unconditional offers plus conditional unconditional offers not selected as firm - an increase of 4% on last year.

The DfE said: "Many institutions are already taking steps to address the rise in unconditional offers and we hope these efforts continue, with the figures showing a different picture next year.

"We look forward to seeing the results of the OfS's and UUK's reviews of admissions practices to ensure they work in the best interests of students."

Applicants from the most disadvantaged areas were 50% more likely to receive an unconditional offer than applicants from the most advantaged areas, the report added.

Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, said the rise in conditional unconditional offers was "concerning".

"The danger of these conditional unconditional offers is that students feel pressurised to accept a place on a course which might not turn out to be their best option," he said.

He said the OfS was "prepared to act where it sees evidence of 'pressure selling' practices which are at risk of breaching consumer law".

"We will be launching a wide-ranging consultation later this year on whether the admissions system serves the interests of students and how it might be improved," Mr Millward added.