Government plans for a minimum GCSE entry level for higher education risk entrenching inequality between rich and disadvantaged students, according to MillionPlus, the association for modern universities in the UK.
It is believed that the government is considering restricting student loans to applicants who have attained at least a level 4 (equivalent to a grade C) in maths and English at GCSE.
After analysing 2020/21 GCSE results data, MillionPlus said that the proposed threshold would leave 48% of all disadvantaged students in England ineligible for a student loan to pay their fees.
“This policy entrenches inequality between rich and poor, north and south and black and white,” Prof Rama Thirunamachandran (pictured above), chair of MillionPlus, told the Guardian. “It is introducing an 11-plus type system by the back door.”
Figures show that barely half (52%) of disadvantaged students achieve grade 4 in English and maths GCSE, set against a national average of 71%.
“So, you are almost saying to a generation of disadvantaged kids: ‘You can’t get a student loan,’” added Thirunamachandran. “That is embedding inequality, not levelling up.”
Pupils are defined as disadvantaged if they were eligible for free school meals at any point from year six to year 11, recorded as having been looked after for at least one day, or were adopted from care.
We need to recognise that just sending kids with low academic achievement into universities isn’t going to magically change them into highly mobile graduates – former education secretary, Gavin Williamson
The geographic disparity outlined by MillionPlus’ parliamentary constituency-based analysis is stark. Considering northern constituencies, the Guardian reports that, under the proposed threshold, 54% of pupils in Great Grimsby would be barred from access to a student loan, together with 50% in Leeds Central, 49% in Bootle, Knowsley and Nottingham North, and 47% in Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough.
All of which is in sharp contrast to the picture in the south. Here, for example, 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.
The proposal for preventing access to loans for those with lower grades was first mooted during the Augar review of post-18 education, commissioned by prime minister Theresa May in February 2018 in a bid to reduce the financial pressure on both students and the Treasury; according to the latest figures, student loan debt reached £141bn by March 2021.
In the event, when the review was published in May 2019, it eschewed making grade thresholds a direct recommendation. Rather, it said the idea should be left as an option to be considered again in 2022, should universities not have addressed such issues as “poor long-term earnings benefits” on some courses.
You are almost saying to a generation of disadvantaged kids: ‘You can’t get a student loan’ – Prof Rama Thirunamachandran, chair of MillionPlus
While there has been no official confirmation that the government will resurrect the plan, the view of the Guardian’s anonymous sources chimes with on-the-record ministerial statements.
In June 2021, for instance, the then education secretary, Gavin Williamson, told a Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) conference: “This is obviously something we’re going to be consulting on.”
He warmed to his theme at another Hepi conference three months later, days before losing his role in a cabinet reshuffle: “We need to recognise that just sending kids with low academic achievement into universities isn’t going to magically change them into highly mobile graduates – indeed, it’s more likely to lead them to failure and poor outcomes.”
Critics point out that apparently reducing access to higher education for poorer students is somewhat at odds with the government’s oft-trumpeted ‘levelling up’ agenda.
“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?” asked Thirunamachandran.
“That’s the political gamble the government is taking.”