English re­view mulls bar­ring stu­dents with low grades from loans

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - John.mor­[email protected]­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

The UK gov­ern­ment’s re­view of post-18 ed­u­ca­tion in Eng­land is thought to be con­sid­er­ing a plan to pre­vent stu­dents with low en­try grades from ac­cess­ing loans, mod­el­ling op­tions that would see most ap­pli­cants with grades be­low Ds or Es at A level in ef­fect barred from uni­ver­sity study.

Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion un­der­stands that the re­view, led by Philip Au­gar, is con­sid­er­ing rec­om­mend­ing the cre­ation of a min­i­mum Ucas tar­iff thresh­old for ac­cess to Stu­dent Loans Com­pany fund­ing, in or­der to limit or re­duce stu­dent num­bers at uni­ver­si­ties.

The re­view has mod­elled dif­fer­ent lev­els for a po­ten­tial thresh­old, such as two or three D grades or E grades at A level or equiv­a­lents, THE un­der­stands.

In this year’s ad­mis­sions cy­cle, more than 80 per cent of ap­pli­cants with grades equiv­a­lent to DDD at A level gained a higher ed­u­ca­tion place.

Greg Walker, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Mil­lionPlus, the as­so­ci­a­tion of mod­ern uni­ver­si­ties, said: “Any at­tempt to smug­gle in a stu­dent num­ber cap in the guise of a min­i­mum grade thresh­old would be a body blow to at­tempts to boost so­cial mo­bil­ity in Eng­land.”

Nick Hill­man, di­rec­tor of the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute, said that “while only a small pro­por­tion of stu­dents have such low grades, a higher pro­por­tion of the most dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents do, so you will move back­wards on widen­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion overnight when you im­ple­ment such a bar”.

Sev­eral sources sug­gested that the Au­gar re­view was also look­ing at an al­ter­na­tive op­tion to con­trol stu­dent num­bers: us­ing the gov­ern­ment’s new grad­u­ate earn­ings data to block ac­cess to SLC fund­ing for par­tic­u­lar in­sti­tu­tional cour­ses with low lev­els of earn­ings. Given that the Lon­gi­tu­di­nal Ed­u­ca­tion Out­comes data are widely re­garded as hav­ing ma­jor flaws, any such move would in­vite le­gal chal­lenge by uni­ver­si­ties.

The re­view’s terms state that its rec­om­men­da­tions “must be con­sis­tent” with the gov­ern­ment’s fis­cal aims on the deficit and debt, while ob­servers be­lieve that the re­view has a long-stand­ing plan to in­crease fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing and to in­cen­tivise a non- de­gree al­ter­na­tive tech­ni­cal route – lead­ing the re­view to work on meth­ods to cap stu­dent num­bers, and spend­ing, in higher ed­u­ca­tion.

The As­so­ci­a­tion of Col­leges said in its re­view sub­mis­sion that the gov­ern­ment “should in­tro­duce a min­i­mum en­try qual­i­fi­ca­tion for ac­cess to bach­e­lor de­gree higher ed­u­ca­tion for those un­der the age of 21” – in ef­fect a cap on stu­dent num­bers in higher ed­u­ca­tion.

The gov­ern­ment’s 2010 Browne re­view rec­om­mended set­ting a Ucas tar­iff point thresh­old for stu­dent fi­nance eli­gi­bil­ity, a rec­om­men­da­tion that min­is­ters did not adopt.

Lord Wil­letts, who was uni­ver­si­ties min­is­ter at that time, said that when the idea of such a bar has been ex­am­ined pre­vi­ously, the judge­ment has been that “it tends to be ma­ture stu­dents who lose out in all this… it’s a bar­rier to [so­cial] mo­bil­ity.”

On the idea of ex­empt­ing ma­ture stu­dents from a loan bar, he said that this would cre­ate “dif­fer­ent cri­te­ria for get­ting into uni­ver­sity de­pen­dent on your age, which in turn raises a se­ries of dif­fi­cult prob­lems”.

By law, uni­ver­si­ties have au­ton­omy on ad­mis­sions – although the gov­ern­ment could at­tempt to ar­gue that it was not set­ting ad­mis­sions cri­te­ria, merely set­ting a thresh­old on eli­gi­bil­ity for loans.

If the gov­ern­ment wanted to im­ple­ment an Au­gar rec­om­men­da­tion to lower the tu­ition fee cap, it would need to pass sec­ondary leg­is­la­tion in Par­lia­ment – and ob­servers sug­gest that the same would be re­quired to set a Ucas tar­iff bar on stu­dent loan eli­gi­bil­ity. In a House of Com­mons where the gov­ern­ment does not have a ma­jor­ity, such plans would be likely to fail, many ob­servers think.

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