Does the government response to Augar threaten higher education for all?

Reflecting on his own experience as a student given a second chance by higher education, Leeds Trinity University’s deputy vice-chancellor Prof Malcolm Todd says proposed minimum entry requirements could close down opportunities for the next generation

Proposals set out in the government’s response to the Augar review include policy changes that would restrict the number of places at universities in England and introduce minimum entry grades to qualify for student loans.

Under the proposals currently put forward for consultation, students who fail to gain a grade four GCSE (old grade C or above) pass in maths and English, or two E grades at A-level, will not be eligible for a student loan. For those that do qualify, the proposals seek to extend the student loan period to 40 years and lower the repayment threshold to £25,000.

For the sake of our future students, I welcome the proposals for tuition fees to be frozen at £9,250 for two years – though I am concerned that many with real potential will be disadvantaged by the proposal for minimum results in English and maths in order to qualify for a loan.

On the face of it, expecting a relatively low qualification in English and maths may seem perfectly reasonable for an undergraduate course: universities are, after all, about academic achievement – but I do think this would impact some of this country’s future talent.

In fact, were such rules in place back when I started my studies, they would probably have prevented me from getting a degree and, ultimately, becoming a professor and deputy vice-chancellor.

For family reasons, I missed large chunks of my education through time off school and did not qualify in maths. I went on to work in a warehouse after school as a forklift truck driver, but I had always wanted the opportunity to go to university.

My own experience in life is that sometimes things do not go right at school: for whatever reason, some don’t get those key qualifications of English and maths, and this can remain a legacy that stays with you for a long time, impeding future career prospects.

In time, I went to evening classes at an FE college, eventually receiving an offer of a place at Sheffield City Polytechnic, now Sheffield Hallam University, which is when I re-engaged with maths and achieved my qualification. Under the government’s proposals, I would not have qualified for a student loan.

I went on to work in a warehouse after school as a forklift truck driver, but I had always wanted the opportunity to go to university.

Does government response to Augar threaten higher education for all?
Leeds Trinity University is a civic university that recognises its potential to help students in West Yorkshire find opportunities to pursue training and careers, says Prof Todd

At Leeds Trinity University, we have a mission to provide support and opportunity for young people and mature learners and help them gain access to higher education through a flexible, individualised approach. We pride ourselves on this, which is reflected in our ‘name, not a number’ ethos.

We are compassionate and understanding of people’s circumstances, including those who may not have had the best start in their primary and secondary education. The minimum entry requirements loans are not set to affect the over 25s, but many younger students will be affected.

The proposals also seek to extend the student loan period to 40 years and lower the repayment threshold to £25,000. This will disproportionately impact lower-earning graduates over a lifetime – a change that does not feel progressive.

At Leeds Trinity University, not all of our courses require English and maths as entry point criteria. As a consequence of the loan requirements, students without the required grades may take a foundation courses, but this would lengthen their studies and ultimately their eventual debt, I would argue unnecessarily.

The government is focusing on STEM subjects, such as natural sciences, maths, engineering, and technology-related fields, deeming other courses which fall outside of this as ‘low-quality’ or ‘low value’. This is quite a reductive vision.

Our university recruits very locally and we have a significant impact in our region, with many graduates going on to work in Leeds or Bradford. We play a significant role in the local economy in terms of the jobs market and we work very closely with the city council on their strategic plans for workforce development. We play a key role as an anchor institution within Leeds.

Does government response to Augar threaten higher education for all? 4
Prof Todd fears that students that do not meet the proposed grade requirements for an HE student loan could be shut out of opportunities open to previous generations.

My concern is that the traditional role Leeds Trinity has played in widening access to higher education will be damaged. We won’t be able to outreach into some of the most deprived wards in West Yorkshire as we have previously, creating opportunities for some of the poorest students in the country who are often first-in-generation entering higher education.

These proposals might deter young people who leave school with no qualifications from even considering higher education as an option. So, what else is available for these students because apprenticeships are not always the right route for them?

We know that over the last two years, the pandemic has had a significant impact on poorer families in the region, so it seems particularly perverse to impact further on young people’s prospects in this way.

Going back to my own experience at Sheffield City Polytechnic, it was those tutors that had faith in me and supported me. I went on to do a degree and a PhD and work there: I think civic universities understand the students and their different paths and are willing to give young people opportunities to progress.

I fear that we are going to see a market-driven, targeted higher education approach, which is going to impede our mission to have an impact and change lives through personalised support in education. If the government truly wants to ‘level up’ the country, they need to start with our young people and give them access to the opportunities they need and deserve – regardless of their background and the cards they have been dealt.

Professor Malcolm Todd was appointed deputy vice-chancellor at Leeds Trinity University in March 2021, having joined on an interim basis in August 2020.

Prior to joining Leeds Trinity, Professor Todd held the position of provost and deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Derby. He has previously worked at Leeds Beckett University as the founding head of the School of Social, Psychological and Communication Studies, and at Sheffield Hallam University where he was the head of learning and teaching in a large faculty.

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