Don’t set minimum entry grades for universities, says former OfS director

Chris Millward, who left the Office for Students in December 2021, has argued universities should not be tasked with improving attainment in schools

Using school grades to divide students between academic and technical post-18 education routes would worsen inequalities for left-behind areas of England, a former director at the Office for Students has claimed.

Chris Millward – who until December 2021 was the director for access and participation at the Office for Students (OfS) – has authored a report offering his “personal perspective” on higher education inequalities in England.

In the report, Mr Millward also argued universities should not be tasked with improving attainment in schools, a mission the government has asked the regulator to pursue with its 340 registered providers.

The report published by the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) makes clear Mr Millward’s opposition to minimum entry requirements to HE in England. “The use of school grades to separate students between academic and technical routes would increase rather than reduce the divisions between the most and least advantaged people and places,” he argued.

“Universities make independent judgements about the potential of applicants to succeed in higher education, within which school grades are an important but not the only factor,” he said. The current size of the attainment gap at age 18 – combined with the impact of the pandemic on schools and teaching – meant that minimum grade entry tariffs would disproportionately block progression for students from deprived backgrounds, Mr Millward argued.

The former OfS director said though there have “been fundamental changes to standards in schools due to policies introduced since 2010”, there had been a “failure to reduce the attainment gap” over the course of the last decade. “However excellent the efforts made by schools, colleges and universities during the coming years, it will be difficult to reduce the attainment gap between the most and least advantaged students and places,” he continued.

Tertiary education in the 21st century cannot, though, simplistically be divided between academic and technical routes
– Chris Millward

Mr Millward also set out his view on a new priority for universities – specified by the minister for higher and further education, Michelle Donelan, last November – that they work with schools to raise secondary school standards. Such an idea had been disregarded by the OfS during his tenure, he explained, because the regulator “could not compel universities and colleges to invest their own funds in schools or for specific purposes”.

Money for access and participation was derived from tuition fees, he said, adding “students would legitimately question why they were being asked to pay for schools”. He also argued any contribution by universities to raising school standards would be “marginal” and hard to measure. Many OfS providers focus their recruitment on “adults from professions and communities, rather than young learners from schools”, Millward continued, making their role in improving schools tangential.

The economic arguments for the cost of higher education to students and the taxpayer “are under strain”, Millward noted, predicting ministers would use them to justify a reduction in HE students and staff “and the promotion of other routes through life”. He suggests that this policy would fail for two reasons: firstly, demand for higher education in the last 70 years has grown continuously and, secondly, because it is hard to differentiate between many HE and FE courses.

“Tertiary education in the 21st century cannot, though, simplistically be divided between academic and technical routes,” he said.

Millward said the regulator “failed to address… the improvement of access for people entering later in life, part-time, through further education and whilst in work” during his four-year stint as a senior director. He suggests “a new settlement for tertiary education in England” is needed to address this long-standing problem.

Chris Millward is now a professor of practice in education policy at the University of Birmingham.

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