Many schools have expressed concern at this trend for some time, attributing a drop-off in A-level performance to the demotivating effect of pupils knowing that their university place is already secure. Whilst some have dismissed this as the self-interest of headteachers concerned about their school's league table performance, any measure that appears to devalue secondary qualifications and impacts negatively on educational attainment must be difficult to justify.
Yet for universities operating in an increasingly competitive landscape without a cap on funded undergraduate numbers, the benefits of making unconditional offers are clear: greater certainty for candidates and institutions alike, making it easier to plan academic programmes and allocate resources such as accommodation.
It goes without saying that there is also, of course, the draw of maximising student fee income. The rise in unconditional offers from fewer than 3,000 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland five years ago to more than 70,000 now suggests a clear link to both the increase in tuition fees to £9,000 per year in 2012 and the staged removal of number caps from 2014.
For some, this is clear case of providers prioritising their own interests, with the former HE minster Sam Gyimah branding the increasing use of unconditional offers as 'irresponsible' and a 'threat to the credibility of the university system'. Damien Hinds has gone further, describing the offers as 'disturbing' and warning against their use as a means of getting students 'through the door'.
The latest OfS research goes beyond concerns about pupils coasting in Year 13 whilst noting that applicants who accept an unconditional offer are more likely to do so by two or more grades. There is further criticism for institutions which issue 'incentivised' or 'conditional unconditional' offers, which guarantee a place only if the candidate accept it as their first choice. Such an approach may constitute the exploitation of an imbalance of power. If true, it may also breach consumer protection laws which prohibit 'aggressive' selling tactics which involve the exertion of 'undue influence' on a consumer.
Just as worrying is the impact on widening access, with the finding that applicants from areas with the lowest HE participation rates are more likely to receive an unconditional offer because they are more likely to apply to the types of university making unconditional offers in greater numbers.
Even before the latest report was published, some providers had already announced that they will no longer make any unconditional offers. This is justified on the basis that it helps ensure that students remain motivated to succeed and to encourage hard work rather than having things 'handed to them on a plate'.
Others have pledged a commitment to unconditional offers but only after candidates attend an interview or audition and submit a portfolio of work. Arguments in favour of this approach cite the desire to reduce the anxiety and stress that students experience in the final year of school and to protect their passion for their chosen subject.
Students who delay applying for university until they have secured their secondary qualifications already benefit from greater certainty and less stress. One of the inevitable consequences of this debate is reconsideration of whether this approach should be the norm rather than the exception. UUK is already working with UCAS to ensure that the best interests of students are protected and it will be interesting to see if this is the direction the sector now takes.