Universities and colleges must not sacrifice quality for “inflated intakes” amid a rise in applications and plans for teacher-assessed grades, the higher education watchdog has warned.
The Office for Students (OfS) has heard of cases this year where large numbers of “unconditional offers” – where a degree place is offered regardless of final results – have been made to prospective students.
Universities must ensure that students starting this autumn are not left disappointed because “over-recruitment” has reduced the quality of their course, the chief executive of the OfS has urged.
The warning over university admissions came after the Government confirmed that teachers in England will decide pupils’ A-level grades this summer after exams were cancelled for the second year in a row.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said universities are “likely to have many well-qualified students to choose from” following a surge in applications and the introduction of teacher assessment.
In a blog on the OfS website, Ms Dandridge said universities and colleges may need to look beyond the grades of disadvantaged students to understand the context in which those grades have been achieved.
Ucas data shows that a record 42.6% of all UK 18-year-olds had applied to university by the main deadline in January, up from 39.5% last year.
Ms Dandridge said: “It is vital that students starting this autumn do not face further disappointment because the quality of their course is reduced by over-recruitment and poor organisation.
“Universities and colleges need to plan wisely to ensure that all students have a high-quality experience. The Office for Students will also use its powers to step in where this is not the case.”
She added: “The burgeoning demand for higher education is a vote of confidence from students in the potentially life-changing benefits that – at their best – universities and colleges can provide.
“Universities and colleges must not abuse this trust by sacrificing quality for inflated intakes.
“Supporting the most disadvantaged students to succeed as they start their journey into higher education should be the number one priority. That is even more the case in the light of the disrupted teaching that many will have received over the last year because of the pandemic.”
Ms Dandridge also emphasised the need for applicants to make informed decisions without being put under “unfair pressure” from institutions.
“Conditional unconditional” offers – which give students a place regardless of their exam grades on the condition that they make a university their firm first choice – have been banned until September 2021.
The OfS chief said: “We have already seen potential evidence that some universities and colleges may not be complying.”
Cases have been flagged to the regulator where offers are being based solely on predicted grades – rather than the grades students go on to achieve.
“We will be investigating these instances further and have powers to impose fines where our rules have been breached,” Ms Dandridge added.
A Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman said: “University admissions teams have worked incredibly hard throughout the pandemic and they are continuing to pull out all the stops to make sure that this year’s applicants get the opportunity to fulfil their potential at university.
“Universities will continue to be fair and flexible in their decision-making, acknowledging the disruption students have faced and recognising the disadvantage that different groups of students have experienced.
“UUK has updated our Fair Admissions Agreement which demonstrates how the sector places students’ best interests at the heart of admissions decision-making processes.”