Universities 'allow increasing numbers of students in without asking for any grades'

May Bulman
There has been a sharp rise in the number of unconditional offers handed out by UK universities: Getty Images

Universities are reportedly accepting an increasing number of students onto courses without asking for any grades, amid growing competition among higher education institutions to attract more undergraduates.

As sixth-form students across the UK prepare to receive their A-level results next week, figures obtained by The Daily Telegraph show that unconditional offers at some of Britain’s leading institutions have more than doubled over the past five years.

Admissions figures obtained by the newspaper through Freedom of Information requests reveal a sharp rise in the number of such offers by universities across the UK, including nine of the leading Russell Group institutions.

Unconditional offers handed out by Edinburgh almost tripled, rising from 125 in 2012-13 to 350 in 2016-17, while those offered by Birmingham doubled from 1,003 to 2,471 in the same period, the newspaper reported. King’s College London, Warwick and Manchester also increased the number of unconditional places they offered, it added.

The news follows a decision to lift number controls in England under new funding rules that came into force in 2015, which enabled universities to recruit as many undergraduates as they saw fit.

The move has led to accusations that they now operate like businesses, attempting to accept as many applicants as possible to maximise profits.

Last year, it emerged the number of unconditional offers rose from 12,100 in 2014 to 23,400 in 2015, indicating that the latest figures are a continuation of a steady increase since the lifting of number controls two years ago.

In another sign of the drive by universities to attract more students, a growing number of sixth-formers are being told that their conditional offers – which require that the student meets grade expectations – would be “upgraded” to unconditional if they mark the institution as their first-choice destination.

A recent report by the university admission service Ucas warned that unconditional offers were, in part, to blame for a fall in the number of A-level students achieving their predicted grades between 2010 and 2015.

A Russell Group spokesperson said: “All offers are based on a detailed assessment of an applicant’s academic record and whether admissions teams feel they will be able to meet the demands of a particular programme of study.”

Despite the rise in unconditional offers, it appears student numbers are going down. A report recently revealed that the proportion of young people who think they are likely to go to university is at its lowest level in years, with many citing cost as a primary concern.

Responding to the annual Sutton Trust poll – which questioned more than 2,600 11 to 16-year-olds in England and Wales – around one in seven (14 per cent) said they were unlikely to go on to higher education, compared with 11 per cent last year and eight per cent five years ago.

The latest statistics by the Department for Education (DfE), meanwhile, showed that the divide between the number of state and private school students attending universities was at an all-time high, despite hundreds of millions of pounds being pumped into schemes to widen access.

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