More than a third of 18-year-olds applying to university in 2018 received a form of unconditional offer before completing their qualifications.
New analysis from Ucas suggests that last year 87,540 applicants who were yet to complete school or college received an offer that could be considered unconditional.
It says this represents 34.4% of 18-year-old applicants from England, Northern Ireland and Wales, and continues an annual upward trend that began in 2013.
For the first time Ucas’ 2018 End of Cycle Report also looks at conditional unconditional offers – offers that are made as conditional, then updated to unconditional if the offer is accepted as the student’s first (firm) choice.
An unconditional offer means a student has a place on a degree course secured, regardless of the grades they achieve in their A-levels or other qualifications.
The 87,540 figure takes into account both of these.
In 2018, 18% of all offers recorded as unconditional were in creative arts and design, the report say, compared to 0.3% for medicine and dentistry courses.
According to the report, providers made 66,315 conditional unconditional offers, 6.9% of all offers made to 18-year-olds from England, Northern Ireland, and Wales.
A survey of 6,000 18-year-old applicants from those countries found that more than 70% felt positively about the practice.
But the increase in unconditional offer making has sparked fears of them increasing the likelihood of students missing their predicted grades.
The Ucas report says institutions are aware of this and some offer additional incentives, such as a bursary or scholarship to students who go on to perform well in their exams after receiving an unconditional offer.
“However it remains the case that applicants who hold an unconditional offer as their firm choice are more likely to miss their predicted A-level grades by 2 or more points, compared to those who are holding a conditional offer as their firm choice,” the report says.
Research covering the 2013 to 2018 admissions cycles indicates applicants holding an unconditional firm offer were between seven and 13% more likely to miss their predicted attainment by two or more grades.
The report says that while most applicants, regardless of the type of offer they hold, miss out on their teacher’s A-level predictions by two or more grades, 67% of those holding unconditional offers fell into this category, compared to 56% holding a conditional offer in 2018.
Clare Marchant, Ucas’ chief executive, said: “It’s clear that the use of unconditional offers is not a binary issue.
“They’re used in a variety of ways to enable students to progress onto undergraduate courses, and while students are broadly supportive of them, the link with their A-level attainment can’t be ignored.”
Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, said: “This year over a third of teenagers have received an unconditional offer. This is a serious problem for access.
“It means that universities are likely to put more weight on students’ predicted grades, which disadvantaged students are more likely to have under-predicted.
“Instead of increasing the rate of unconditional offers even more, we want to move to a post-qualification applications system where students apply only after they have received their A-level results.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is clear this practice is now completely out of control and is driven by market forces rather than by educational considerations.
“The problem with unconditional offers is that some students take their foot off the gas and under-achieve in A-levels or other qualifications and this hampers their employment prospects later in life.”
The report, published on Thursday, shows that 533,360 people were accepted onto an undergraduate course in the 2018 cycle, just 525 fewer than last year.
A record 33% of the 18-year-old population in the UK were accepted, an increase of 0.4 percentage points on 2017.
International acceptances also reached record highs, with the number of students placed from the European Union increasing by 3.8% to 31,855, and non-EU acceptances reaching 42,220, up 4.9%.
Universities and colleges made a total of more than 1.9 million offers, with 92% of applicants receiving an offer – proportionally more than at any other point in the last decade.