Universities are presiding over an “emperor’s new clothes” conspiracy, a leading headmaster has said as he warns that “any fool” can get a place these days.
Institutions are admitting students who they would not have dreamed of taking a decade ago, according to Tim Firth who is head of the £33,500-a-year Wrekin College, a boarding school in Wellington, Shropshire.
He accused universities of creating an “illusion” that their academic standards remain the same but in reality they are “dumbing down” their entrance requirements.
There is now a “lamentable lack of standards” even at members of the elite Russell Group, he said. Universities will also claim that you need certain A-levels to get a place on each course but in reality they are prepared to admit students with up to two grades below this, Mr Firth explained.
“They are creating the illusion that they are not doing that because every year when they advertise their courses the same grade criterion remains,” he told The Sunday Telegraph.
“To compound this when students go to universities, they mark their own exams. Lo and behold a large number of people are doing very well.”
Fierce competition between universities to attract students has seen sixth form pupils increasingly offered places regardless of their exam results.
The lifting of student number controls in England in 2015 gave universities free rein to recruit as many undergraduates as they see fit.
But the move has led to accusations that they now act like businesses, seeking to maximise their revenue by recruiting as many students as possible. “Any fool can go to university.
Everyone has a vested interest in keeping this quiet because universities want to fill places and not admit they are dumbing down,” said Mr Firth.
“Parents want their children to get in and be seen as high achievers by future employers and, of course, headteachers want to be seen as successfully responsible for getting students into university.”
He said that students are no longer putting down an “insurance” option – where they have been offered a place based on lower A-level grades - on their Ucas forms. Instead, they are increasingly selecting two highly selective institutions for their first and second choices, and the “gambling” on the fact that either one or both would admit them even if they missed their offer.
The number of unconditional offers has risen sharply in recent years, with students now 30 times more likely to receive one than five years ago.
Those who left school with less than DDD last year were four times more likely to graduate with a first class degree compared to seven years ago, a report by the Office for Students (OfS) found.
The regulator has previously threatened institutions with sanctions, including fines or even de-registration, if they fail to take action over the issue.
A spokesman for Universities UK, the vice-Chancellors membership organisation, said the deciding independently which students they admit is “an important principle of the UK system”.
“But with this comes a responsibility to explain why and how places are awarded and to show the public and students why different types of offers are made,” the spokesman said.
“There are benefits in universities being able to take into account an individual student’s circumstances, potential and the context of their application, and to support different groups such as students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”