Universities should be “selecting” students not making unconditional offers regardless of grades, Sam Gyimah has said.
The Universities Minister warned institutions were “sidestepping” the requirement for students to achieve good grades and it could “undermine” academia.
Speaking at an education conference in central London, the Tory MP said universities should instead look at whether an applicant would “succeed in a university environment”.
It comes amid a sharp rise in the number of unconditional offers. Official figures show the number of unconditional offers rose 40% in a year, with 51,615 handed out last year, compared to 36,825 in 2016 and 2,985 in 2013.
Asked about the issue, Gyimah told reporters: “My reaction to that is for universities to really work they’ve got to be selecting people who can succeed in a university environment and do well in a university environment so unconditional offers should not be used as a way of sidestepping that key criteria that should be there for people to get into a university environment.
“Ultimately, universities are about excellence and you don’t want to in any way undermine that about universities.
It comes as the Government aims to promote apprenticeships, technical education and more adult learning.
Gyimah, who was moved to the Department for Education role in Theresa May’s January reshuffle, also gave a speech at the event in which he said universities were facing unprecedented “winds of change”.
The days when students “venerated institutions” and were thankful to win places are gone, and universities are now in “the age of the student”.
Universities have rarely been out of the spotlight with senior leaders’ pay, free speech, student debt, value for money and the achievement of disadvantaged students all under scrutiny.
Gyimah said: “Some in the sector see this as a sort of annus horribilis for higher education, a storm to be weathered in the hope of calmer times ahead.
“I think this is a mistaken reading.
“To paraphrase one Conservative prime minister, we are once again experiencing the ‘winds of change’ in the university sector.
“Gone are the days when students venerated institutions and were thankful to be admitted. We are in a new age - the age of the student.”
The conference was to mark the launch of the new higher education regulator, the Office for Students.
Gyimah said: “Not a single week goes by without a university story being splashed on the front pages.
“Be it industrial action, investigations into top pay, concerns over free speech or controversies about ‘decolonising the curricula’.
“Questions on value for money, the size of the graduate premium, the relatively poor attainment of disadvantaged students at universities, the mental health and wellbeing of our students and the very broader purpose of universities are not just issues for anxious parents and grandparents worried about student fees.
“They are being debated by serious and credible commentators in policy circles and the media.”