Universities that pressure students into accepting unconditional offers face being fined or even deregistered.
The Office for Students (OfS) has warned higher education providers indiscriminate use of unconditional offers is akin to pressure selling and could put them in breach of consumer law.
It comes as new research from the OfS highlights the rise in unconditional offers in England, and looks at the impact of the practice on students’ decision making.
The paper looks at unconditional offers which guarantee an applicant a place with no conditions, and conditional unconditional offers, those that become unconditional if an applicant makes the offer their firm choice.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said: “We are concerned about the rapid rise in unconditional offers, particularly those with strings attached which are akin to pressure selling.
“It is plainly not in students’ interests to push them to accept an offer that may not be their best option.
“Whatever admissions practices universities choose to use, they should clearly be encouraging students to make the decision that is right for them, and not the decision that best suits the university.
“If we identify cases where unconditional offers are having an obvious negative impact on students’ choices or outcomes, we are of course prepared to intervene.”
If the OfS identifies cases where providers breach any of its conditions of registration or risk breaching them, a number of different measures can be taken.
It can impose additional specific ongoing conditions and enhance its monitoring of the institution, or the OfS can also consider formal sanctions like financial penalties, suspension from the OfS register or deregistration in the most extreme cases.
The data from the report shows the number of offers with an unconditional component made to 18-year-olds has risen from 3,000 in 2013 to 117,000 in 2018.
According to the research in 2013 no conditional unconditional offers detected, with more than 66,000 were made to 18-year-olds in 2018.
It also found that applicants who accept an unconditional offer are more likely to miss their predicted A-level grades by two or more grades.
A spokeswoman for Universities UK said: “As this report sets out, we do not yet have a full picture on the impact of unconditional offers on the students who receive them.
“While initial evidence suggests that some students with unconditional offers achieve below their predicted A-level grades, these offers are also more likely to be made to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, and can impact positively on these individuals’ mindsets as they approach life at university.
She added: “We will explore with Ucas if there is more we can do as a sector to promote good practice and ensure the admissions system continues to work in the best interests of students.
“We will also engage with the Office for Students as it consults with the higher education sector on its work to develop principles for an admissions system that serves the interests of students.”
Education Secretary Damian Hinds said he has told the OfS that where institutions cannot justify the rising number of unconditional offers, they should use the full range of powers at their disposal to take action.
He added: “The steep rise in unconditional offers across a wide range of subjects is disturbing, and I believe that widespread use of these offers is not in the best interests of students, who should be encouraged to reach their full potential.
“There are some cases and subjects, like fine art, where unconditional offers have always had their place.
“But to be truly ambitious for students to go as far as their talents will take them, I do not want to see them tempted towards unconditional offers without fully considering all their options or at the cost of achieving even more than they thought possible.
“What I find particularly concerning is the OfS’s finding of how many of those accepting unconditional offers then miss their predicted A Level grades, because if university didn’t work out for that student it is those A Level grades they would fall back on.
“That’s why I am urging universities to use their offers responsibly and not just use unconditional offers to get students through the door.”