UNIVERSITIES face fines or deregistration over “pressure selling” unconditional places to students, the regulator warns on Friday.
The Office for Students declared the soaring number of unconditional offers with “strings attached” could put them in breach of consumer law.
Figures show the number of offers with an unconditional component made to 18-year-olds has rocketed from 3,000 in 2013 to a staggering 117,000 in 2018.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said: “We are concerned about the rapid rise in unconditional offers, particularly those with strings attached which are akin to pressure selling.
“It is plainly not in students’ interests to push them to accept an offer that may not be their best option.”
Unconditional offers guarantee applicants a place with no conditions.
But there are also conditional unconditional offers that become unconditional if an applicant makes the offer their firm choice.
Ms Dandridge added: “Whatever admissions practices universities choose to use, they should clearly be encouraging students to make the decision that is right for them, and not the decision that best suits the university.
“If we identify cases where unconditional offers are having an obvious negative impact on students’ choices or outcomes, we are of course prepared to intervene.”
If the OfS identifies breaches it can penalise the university with fines, suspension from the OfS register or deregistration in the most extreme cases.
Researchers found in 2013 no conditional unconditional offers detected, with more than 66,000 were made to 18-year-olds in 2018.
It also found that applicants who accept an unconditional offer are more likely to miss their predicted A-level grades by two or more grades.
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A spokeswoman for Universities UK said: “We do not yet have a full picture on the impact of unconditional offers on the students who receive them.
“We will explore with Ucas if there is more we can do as a sector to promote good practice and ensure the admissions system continues to work in the best interests of students.”
Education Secretary Damian Hinds said the steep rise in unconditional offers across a wide range of subjects was “disturbing”.