Promising students are flunking A Levels because landing an unconditional offer has become “the norm” no matter what grades they get, the Universities Minister has said.
Sam Gyimah has told HuffPost UK he is concerned about a sharp rise in institutions making no demand for applicants to hit certain grades in order to secure a place on a university course.
The Government wants a clampdown on the practice, because students stop “working as hard as they should” when the no-strings-attached offers arrive, he said.
“The reason why universities make an offer based on grades is that it is a way of ensuring that the student is capable of the higher learning that is expected of them at a university,” said Gyimah.
“If unconditional offers are becoming routine, the question has to be: are they getting students to stretch themselves and are they picking students that are capable of higher learning?”
“We want unconditional offers to be used in exceptional circumstances and as a last resort.”
UCAS, the universities admissions service, has recorded a 40% rise in unconditional offers in the last admissions cycle alone, but the climb since 2012 has been dramatic.
While UK universities made just a few hundred in the years to 2012, the number of unconditional offers rose to 2,985 in 2013-14, 36,825 in 2014-15 and 51,615 last year - a rise of more than 1,600% over five years. Unconditional offers are now given in response to 5% of applications.
Gyimah, who has previously said universities should be garnering a reputation for “excellence”, said the offers should only be made in “exceptional circumstances” or as a “last resort”.
Gyimah said universities have a duty to test whether a student is able before allowing them to enroll and a reformed careers advice service should investigate whether higher education was “appropriate” for those applying.
He said: “There are many reasons for unconditional offers – I accept that – but the increase in the number of unconditional offers is a source of some concern.
“If you speak to a lot of sixth form teachers, for example, they will tell you that when students get unconditional offers, some of them just stop learning and engaging and working as hard for their A Levels as they should – and I don’t think that is right.
“Admissions are a matter for universities and universities are autonomous institutions but we want unconditional offers to be used in exceptional circumstances and as a last resort rather than the norm.”
“We share the minister's concern that a student with an unconditional offer might be tempted to take their foot off the gas.”
The University and College Union (UCU) was in strong agreement with the minister and said students should be barred from applying until they receive their grades.
A spokesman said: “The minister is right to flag up the problems with unconditional offers. We share his concern that a student with an unconditional offer might be tempted to take their foot off the gas.
“The quickest and simplest way to resolve the issue is for us to join the rest of the world and establish a system where students apply to university after they receive their results.”
But the Lib Dems said rather than universities lowering their standards, the spike in offers showed they had lost faith in A Level exams as a benchmark for abilty.
The party’s education spokesperson, Layla Moran MP, said: “Unconditional offers should only be used in cases where students have clearly demonstrated they have the skills to succeed at their chosen university, based on their prior grades and the university’s application process.
“However the steep rise in the use of unconditional offers raises questions about whether universities lack confidence in A-level exams and do not think they offer the best reflection of a students ability.”
As Brexit approaches, the demand for technical skills is expected to peak, but Gyimah said capping the number of university places was not on the Government’s agenda.
He said: “We haven’t put a cap on the number of people going to university because we don’t want to put a limit on people’s aspirations.”
“We haven’t put a cap on the number of people going to university because we don’t want to put a limit on people’s aspirations.”
Gyimah, who hopes the UK will become a world leader in artificial intelligence, said reform of the careers advice service and boosting technical education should form part of the solution.
At a recent Education Select Committee hearing, Gyimah encourage Oxford University to begin offering degree apprenticeships, something which Cambridge University has already done.
“We do have some very good technical education but we could do better,” he told HuffPost. “To do better, there are a number of things we need to resolve across our education system – yes, improved careers advice is important but also a greater focus on the vocational and technical side.
“We need much clearer routes into alternatives to university and to focus on high quality, technical skills that employers want but also in our uni system getting more graduates from our universities with good technical skills.”
The Government launched a review of post-18 education in February.
HuffPost UK contacted the National Union of Students for a comment but no one was available.