Heads welcome calls for minimum entry requirements to university

School leaders have welcomed calls for the government to reconsider introducing minimum entry requirements for all undergraduate courses, in a bid to stamp out the sharp rise in unconditional offers.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has thrown his weight behind a new report which recommends that the government require pupils to achieve certain grades in order to access a bachelor’s degree.

The report, published today by the Association of Colleges, says a minimum qualifications entry requirement will help stop the “spread” of unconditional offers by universities, which it says are having a “disruptive impact” on A-level and level 3 attainment.

It comes after analysis by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) found that the number of unconditional offers made by universities has jumped by 32 per cent in just one year.

When asked for more details about the suggestion, a spokesperson for the AoC said discussions are still ongoing. However its report notes an independent review of higher education funding by Lord Browne in 2010 which recommended a minimum entry standard of UCAS points.

The Browne review recommended the government set the entry standard each year, taking into account demand for university places and available budget to pay for them. It stated: “Students would not be eligible for financial support if their grades were below this level.”

However, the government rejected the suggestion, and the AoC report admits it is “hard to use entry qualifications to regulate higher education.”

But the investigation by UCAS, in tandem with the Office for Students, has since revealed that almost a quarter of pupils now receive at least one offer of a place that doesn’t depend on their A-level grade, with some universities even appearing to tell pupils they don’t need to finish their final year at school. 

Barton said unconditional offers can cause pupils to “take their foot off the pedal in their A-levels or other level 3 qualifications”, and so “not do themselves justice” in their courses. Lower grades may also hamper their employment prospects later, said Barton.

“Minimum entry requirements could help to combat the issues associated with the use of unconditional offers. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss how this might work in more detail.”

He urged universities to desist from enticing pupils onto their courses by giving them unconditional offers.

However Nick Hillman, the head of the Higher Education Policy Institute, has previously told The Guardian that such suggestions amount to an attack on universities’ autonomy.

“University autonomy means little if universities aren’t free to set their own admissions policies. Banning unconditional offers is therefore unwise as well as illiberal.

“It probably is time for a new debate on post-qualification admissions but if you were to ban unconditional offers and move to a post-qualification system, it would have the odd effect of putting excessive focus on exam results rather than candidates’ all-round potential.”

The DfE have previously said that giving out unconditional places “just to put ‘bums on seats’ not only undermines the credibility of the university system but does students a disservice by distracting them from their studies and swaying their decisions.

“We are concerned about the rise in unconditional offers. The Office for Students are closely monitoring the number being issued and we fully expect them as the regulator to take appropriate action.”