Controversial “conditional unconditional” university offers will be banned until September 2021, under new rules announced by an education regulator.
Such offers give students a place – regardless of their A-level grades – on condition they make the university their firm first choice.
But updated rules from the the Office for Students (OfS) prohibits any university from giving out the offers or making false or misleading statements with the intention of discouraging students from attending other institutions, and universities who breach them could be fined more than £500,000.
The condition has been introduced in consultation with the higher education sector and is a temporary response to the coronavirus pandemic, with a fixed end date, according to the OfS.
The new rules also still allow universities to make “contextual offers” to students from disadvantaged or underrepresented backgrounds, who may get lower grades than required, to recognise the different circumstances around their results.
The move comes amid a sharp increase in “conditional unconditional” offers in recent years.
Data published by Ucas earlier this year showed that in 2019 there were 35 universities and colleges where at least 1% of offers made were “conditional unconditional”.
Critics have slammed the practice due to concerns they encourage students not to work hard to get the best A-level results.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said: “Our concerns are even more acute in these exceptional times with the shape of the next few months and years still very unpredictable, and information, advice and guidance less readily available than it may normally be.
“However, we have ensured that the condition explicitly permits unconditional and contextual offers that are clearly in students’ interests, and which support the transition into higher education for the most disadvantaged students.
“Students can also be reassured that they should not expect to have any offers that they have already received withdrawn, and where there are good reasons for them to receive an unconditional or contextual offer in future, there is no reason that this cannot go ahead.”
She added the “necessary and proportionate” changes were designed to “avoid instability” during the pandemic and would not continue past September 2021.
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: “There is no justification for conditional unconditional offers and I welcome the strong action against these potentially damaging practices while the sector navigates this uncertain period, and hope to see this continue beyond 2021.
“I do not want students to be taken advantage of and feel pressured into making a major life decision which might not be right for them.”
The University and College Union (UCU) also backed the move for a “fairer admissions system”.
It said allowing applicants to apply after they received their results would be better for students and remove the “gamble” of predicted grades.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “These controversial offers have highlighted the failings with our system where students apply to university before they receive their results.
“It is time we joined the rest of the world and moved to post-qualification admissions system, where students receive offers after their results.”
A Universities UK spokesperson added: “It is vital that the admissions process remains fair, consistent, and in the best interests of all students and it is right to have temporary stability measures at this unprecedented time.”