Top A-level pass rates could drop this year in part due to the soaring numbers of unconditional degree offers handed out by universities, it has been suggested.
There are warnings that the hike in these guaranteed places could mean students have “taken their foot off the pedal”, leading to lower overall A-level results.
Figures published by exams service Ucas last month showed that more than a fifth of teenagers have been handed at least one unconditional offer this year, amid intense competition between institutions to attract candidates.
In total, almost 68,000 of these offers have been made to 18-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland this year, up from less than 3,000 just five years ago.
The issue has sparked concerns from ministers and school leaders, who have argued the practice undermines the credibility of the university system and puts youngsters’ futures at risk.
University leaders said they are monitoring trends and any impact unconditional offers might have on exam results.
Ahead of A-level results day, Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, suggested the rise in unconditional offers could contribute to a fall in the proportion of exams awarded an A* or A grade.
If those given a guaranteed offer “really take their foot off the pedal, they may not be getting the high grades that they might otherwise have done”, he told the Press Association.
The Ucas figures show 22.9% of 18-year-old university applicants (58,385) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have received at least one unconditional offer this year.
There have been major changes to A-levels in England, with a move away from coursework and modular exams throughout the course.
Last year the first grades were awarded in the first 13 subjects to be reformed in England.
The overall proportion of A-levels (reformed and unreformed) in the UK scoring the highest grades rose last year, up 0.5 percentage points to 26.3%.
But among these 13 subjects only, results were down.
When comparing 18-year-olds’ results, the figures showed that the proportion of A* grades for these 13 subjects fell by 0.5 percentage points to 7.2%, while A*-A grades dropped 0.7 percentage points to 24.3%.
A further 11 A-level subjects – including languages, geography, dance, drama and theatre, music, PE and religious studies – have now been reformed with grades awarded for the first time this year.
Prof Smithers said: “Putting together the fact that 24 of the most frequently taken A-levels have changed in England, and that we’ve got unconditional offers operating, they’re likely to bring the results down a bit.”
He said mitigating this are a number of factors, including processes put in place by England’s exams regulator Ofqual to ensure that results are comparable and the first cohorts of students to take new courses are not disadvantaged.
Results in Wales and Northern Ireland could also play a part in overall results, Prof Smithers added, along with maths and further maths A-level, a subject in which large numbers of students score high grades.
A small number of students, around 2,200 will be awarded the first grades in new A-level maths this year, but this course, and new A-level further maths were only taught for the first time a year ago, and so most candidates will not get grades until next year.
The academic said he thinks the overall A*-A pass-rate will “be down a bit because of the reformed A-levels and possibly also the unconditional offers”, adding he predicts it will drop by less than a percentage point.
Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “If there is a dip in the top grades, it could well be due to youngsters taking their foot off the gas.
“I do think it’s something that we have to look at.”
He added: “We’re very concerned that universities are doing this to get bums on seats.
“Whereas, in fact what should be happening in the process is that students are on the most appropriate degree provision for them, for what their potential career progression is going to be, and if the nature of the course that they’re doing is best suited to them.”
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK, said that unconditional offers still account for a small proportion (7.1%) of all offers made.
“They are made in a range of circumstances,” he said.
“These include when applicants already have qualifications or extensive practical and relevant experience for courses such as music or journalism.
“They can also be awarded where evidence suggests applicants are clearly on track to exceed the required entry grades, and to those from disadvantaged backgrounds with the potential to do well at university with extra support.
“Unconditional offers, when used appropriately, can help students and ensure that universities are able to respond flexibly to the range of applicants seeking places.
“Universities UK will continue to work with Ucas to monitor trends and any impact unconditional offer-making might have on exam results.”