Education Secretary Damian Hinds said he is to order 23 institutions, including Lancaster University, to stop using ‘unethical’ and ‘unacceptable’ recruitment methods.
Mr Hinds is also commissioning a wider review of university admissions, amid fears teenagers are coasting in A-levels as they are likely to be guaranteed places regardless of grades.
Last year, unconditional offers were made to a third of applicants as soaring numbers of students with poor results were recruited by universities competing to fill spaces.
Mr Hinds has singled out the practice of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers for criticism. This is when a university makes a conditional offer but, when a student agrees to make it their first choice, this is converted to an unconditional offer. The minister will say the practice is ‘backing students into a corner’, and could even breach consumer protection laws. He will write to 23 institutions ordering them to stop issuing such offers.
“It is unacceptable for universities to adopt pressure-selling tactics, which are harming students’ grades in order to fill places,” Mr Hinds said.
“Conditional unconditional offers are damaging the reputation of the institutions involved and our world-leading sector as a whole.”
He will ask the higher education regulator, the Office for Students, to further examine the use of unconditional offers.
Universities UK said it was already working with the admissions service Ucas to review existing guidance and ‘gain a better understanding of how these offers are being used’.
A spokesman added: “Universities must be able to explain why and how they award unconditional offers with conditions attached.”
A Lancaster University spokesman said: “In 2018 applicants to Lancaster who received an unconditional offer went on to achieve higher A-level grades than those who do not (by an average of 12 UCAS points).
“In our experience it is not the case that unconditional offers weaken A-level performance.
“Lancaster’s unconditional offer scheme is linked to excellence in scholarship to attract the best applicants and therefore encourages students to continue to strive for the best possible grades in their exams. Lancaster is a top 10 ranked UK university and it is not in the interests of the student or the university to encourage or accept poorer performance.
“Under the scheme, applicants who achieve the published entry grades (typically AAB) or above are awarded a financial scholarship to support their studies.
“There are various assertions within the DfE statement that we do not recognise nor do we feel are backed up by evidence.
“We don’t practise ‘pressure selling’ tactics and have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from applicants about our approach to offers.
“We will, of course, consider all advice carefully and will continue to assess our position.”