Students from disadvantaged backgrounds in England could be blocked from going to university.
Under proposals announced by the government this week, it’s been revealed that students from disadvantaged backgrounds in England could be blocked from studying at university unless they secure strong GCSE or A-level grades.
On Thursday, 24th of February 2022, the government is set to publish its long-awaited response to the Augar review of higher education funding. It is expected that a key element of the response will be the launch of a consultation on minimum entry requirements for students to be eligible for government-backed loans for tuition and maintenance.
University leaders warn that setting minimum entry requirements too high, such as requiring a grade 5 in GCSE maths and English, would end the hopes of many school leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds and others who could not be able to afford the £9,250 annual undergraduate tuition fee or living expenses without student loans.
A key determinant will be whether a GCSE grade 4 or 5 is considered the minimum entry standard. Around 71% of pupils in England achieve a grade 4 in GCSE English and maths, reducing to 52% amongst those from disadvantaged households.
Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “After nearly three years of inaction, this meagre response shows the government does not share the ambitions of young people and their families for their futures and the future of our country. Instead of looking to widen access to university education or supporting the success of our universities, the government is slamming the door on opportunity.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said, “Higher education is an investment, and we need to ensure that graduates are being rewarded for the money, time and effort they put into their studies with an educational experience and jobs that match their skills and help contribute to the economy.”
The announcement comes as record numbers of school leavers applied for undergraduate places this year. The Department for Education has been battling with the Treasury over the cost of financing since late 2018 when the Augar review was published under the then prime minister Theresa May.
Further consultation will be announced on the future of foundation year courses taught at universities. Foundation years are offered to students who don’t meet an institution’s academic requirements and remain a key point of access for many, especially mature students. However, the Augar review recommended that foundation years be restricted to further education colleges.
Other headline measures which are expected to be announced include the freezing of the tuition fees at £9,250 for another two years and a freeze on the threshold earnings for student loan repayments.
Earlier this year, the Department For Education announced that the repayment threshold (the amount at which graduates in England pay off their student loans) would be frozen at £27,295. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates this would cost graduates earning £30,000 an extra £113 each year.
The review in 2019 was launched at a time of mounting concern about the cost and overall value of higher education in the United Kingdom. This was a result of annual tuition fees rising to their highest level and maintenance grants being removed, which sent individual student debt spiralling to almost £50,000.
When it was reported in May 2019, it included 53 recommendations on the future for the higher education sector. These included a reduction of tuition fees to £7,500, an extension of student loan repayments from 30 to 40 years and the reintroduction of maintenance grants for the most disadvantaged students.
However, as time has gone on and the political climate has changed, many of Augar’s recommendations have looked increasingly unlikely to be adopted. With outstanding student loans reaching £140bn last year, the Treasury’s priority has been to reduce the cost of student loans to itself rather than ease the burden on students.
University staff are currently locked in a bitter industrial dispute over pensions, pay and working conditions. On Tuesday evening, a key negotiating committee rejected funding proposals by the University and College Union in favour of those put forward by the employers.
Jo Grady, chair of the UCU, warned that the decision would lead to further industrial action amongst staff. “University vice-chancellors have today chosen to steal tens of thousands from the retirement income of staff. This is a deplorable attack which our members won’t take lying down.”