Nearly half of all disadvantaged pupils in England could be prevented from going to university under government plans for a minimum GCSE entry level for higher education, university leaders are warning.
Vice-chancellors believe that the government is poised to introduce a new entry threshold for a place on university courses as a means of reining in its rising student loan debt, with outstanding loans reaching £140bn last year. They are expecting the government to announce that students will not be eligible for a student loan unless they have at least a level 4 (the equivalent of an old grade C) in maths and English at GCSE.An analysis of Department for Education (DfE) GCSE results data conducted by the Million Plus group of modern universities and given to the Guardian shows that under the plan, 48% of all disadvantaged students in England would be ineligible for a student loan to pay the £9,250-a-year fees.Prof Rama Thirunamachandran, chair of Million Plus and vice-chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University, said: “This policy entrenches inequality between rich and poor, north and south and black and white. It is introducing an 11-plus type system by the back door.”The government’s figures show that 52% of disadvantaged young people get grade 4 in English and maths GCSE compared with the national average of 71%. “So you are almost saying to a generation of disadvantaged kids: ‘You can’t get a student loan,’” said Thirunamachandran. “That is embedding inequality, not levelling up.”Million Plus analysed GCSE results in maths and English by parliamentary constituency and found the policy would hit young people in poorer areas of northern England far harder than in wealthier areas in the south.We already label a third of pupils taking English and maths GCSEs as failures – this will only condemn them further”Lee Elliot MajorUnder the proposed threshold, for instance, 54% of pupils in Great Grimsby would be ineligible for a student loan, as would 50% in Leeds Central, 49% in Bootle, Knowsley and Nottingham North, and 47% in Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough. In contrast, in the south only 12% of pupils would be excluded in Hitchin and Harpenden, 14% in St Albans, and 15% in London and Westminster, Chipping Barnet, and Richmond Park.Thirunamachandran, said: “The question is, if you are a parent in one of these less privileged regions in the north, will you simply accept that your child doesn’t have the same right to go to university as someone in a more privileged place in the south? That’s the political gamble the government is taking.”It is thought that the government believes many voters would consider it reasonable to expect students to have a good level of numeracy and literacy, making the idea a politically safe way to reduce student numbers.Claire Callender, professor of higher education at Birkbeck University and University College London’s Institute of Education, said: “This is a cap on student numbers through the back door – but not a cap on all potential students, just the most disadvantaged and those most affected by Covid.”She argued that a minimum entry level requirement signalled “an abandonment of any government concern about widening HE participation and nurturing social mobility” and said it would “cement existing social divides amongst young people at a time when they are widening rather than narrowing”.Sir David Bell, a former permanent secretary in the DfE and now vice-chancellor of Sunderland University, said the entry threshold would be seen as “a cap on aspiration”.David Bell, vice-chancellor of Sunderland University, says the entry requirements will be seen as ‘a cap on aspiration’“Politicians and policymakers always underestimate that really deeply felt aspiration to get to university,” he said. “They often falsely assume that people in a city like Sunderland just don’t want to go, but it’s simply not the case.”In its interim response to the Augar review of post-18 education in January the government said: “We are currently too skewed towards degrees above all else.” And last year the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, accused universities of “taking advantage” of disadvantaged students by mis-selling them dumbed-down courses that left them saddled with debt.Bell said the idea that universities are interested only in “piling students in” like “cash cows” was “offensive and unfair”. “We genuinely want them to succeed,” he added. “It is universities like ours that do the majority of the heavy lifting on social mobility.” He said universities such as his were very experienced in making nuanced decisions about applicants’ potential, and whether they would cope with a degree course. Sunderland takes a high proportion of mature students, many of whom do not have traditional qualifications and would be excluded under the proposed new system.Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, who is leading a research project on how to help those who leave school without basic literacy or numeracy, said: “This is effectively closing off university prospects at age three for many poorer children. Our research shows the depressingly strong link between achieving poorly in early-age tests and failing to get passes in English and maths GCSEs at age 16.”Children from the lowest fifth of family income backgrounds are five times more likely to leave school without passes in English and maths GCSEs than those from the highest fifth of incomes, his research shows.“This move exposes the fundamental flaw at the heart of our education system: we already label a third of pupils taking English and maths GCSEs as failures – this will only condemn them further,” Elliot Major said.Academic staff at modern universities also say courses such as paramedicine, nursing and social care would all lose students under the proposed model, just as England is experiencing staff shortages in these professions.Dr Signy Henderson, dean for student success at Cumbria University, said its paramedic science degree would suffer. “We all know how desperately the country needs more well-qualified paramedics,” she said. “We often have learners who have real potential, but who went to schools where they say no one pushed them, or grew up in homes where no one understood the value of good GCSEs.”The DfE said it would not comment on speculation about discussions around minimum grade requirements and possible exemptions, which it said were ongoing.However, a spokesperson said: “This is a government that has boosted aspirations and grown opportunities for disadvantaged people across the country, and this year a record proportion of disadvantaged students has started university as a result. We are committed to continuing to level up opportunity.”He added: “But we also want to make getting on as important as getting in, which is why last month we asked universities to reboot their widening access plans with ambitious targets to support students both before and during their time at university, by reducing dropout rates and improving progression into high-paid, high-skilled jobs for disadvantaged students.”