Universities in England have been warned against admitting too many students this year.
The Office for Students (OfS) has told institutions that they must not sacrifice quality for “inflated intakes” amid a rise in applications and plans for teacher-assessed grades.
It said that admissions tutors should not “over-recruit” in a year likely to see unusually high numbers of top grades, and that universities could face punishments – including fines – for taking on too many students at the expense of quality of provision.
UCAS data shows that a record 42.6% of all UK 18-year-olds had applied to university by the main deadline in January, up from 39.5% last year.
Experts predict that the turn to teacher-assessed grades for the second year in a row will lead to a repeat of the high grades seen last year, when a record 38.1% of grades were A or above, compared with the usual 25%.
This grade inflation will mean a larger number of students will be eligible for a place at university.
Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of the OfS, said: “It is vital that students starting this autumn do not face further disappointment because the quality of their course is reduced by over-recruitment and poor organisation.
“Universities and colleges need to plan wisely to ensure that all students have a high-quality experience. The Office for Students will also use its powers to step in where this is not the case.”
It is vital that students starting this autumn do not face further disappointment because the quality of their course is reduced by over-recruitment and poor organisation
– Nicola Dandridge
Ms Dandridge also warned universities against picking applicants in a way that is socially exclusive, encouraging admissions tutors to “look beyond grades to identify potential by understanding the context in which those grades have been achieved”.
She criticised a number of institutions for their use of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, which give students a place regardless of grades if they make a certain university their firm first choice. These have been banned until September 2021, but Ms Dandridge said “we have already seen potential evidence that some universities and colleges may not be complying”.
Nick Hillman, of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that there should be acceptance of an “unstoppable” rising demand for higher education, and that capacity should be expanded “rather than beating up on universities”.
Universities UK said that admissions decisions would be “fair and flexible”, and that these decisions would take into account “the disruption students have faced and recognise the disadvantage that different groups of students have experienced”.
A spokeswoman added: “University admissions teams have worked incredibly hard throughout the pandemic and they are continuing to pull out all the stops to make sure that this year’s applicants get the opportunity to fulfil their potential at university.”