This article is more than 5 years old

A brick wall in the way of social mobility

South Bank VC Dave Phoenix argues that a minimum grade threshold for university entry would damage social mobility
This article is more than 5 years old

Professor Dave Phoenix is the Vice Chancellor of London South Bank University.

There are many compelling reasons why rationing student places by a minimum grade threshold for university entry is self-defeating for any government committed to social mobility.

School leaders as well as higher education figures have expressed their surprise in recent days that a policy decisively rejected in the past is being resurrected for consideration. It is remarkable that this policy is being entertained a little over three years since the previous Prime Minister committed the government to “20% more university places” by 2020, saying that this was at “the heart of a One Nation ideal”.

Brexit may have shaken Britain’s political foundations, but there is no excuse for it to shake our society’s commitment to allowing people from all backgrounds a fair chance to reach their potential, especially when restrictions to migration are likely to mean that we will need to train more high-skilled individuals than ever before.


There is a strong connection between socio-economic background and entry grades. As the Sutton Trust have stated ‘highly able pupil premium pupils achieve half a grade less than other highly able pupils, on average, with a very long tail to underachievement.’ It is for this reason that many universities provide contextualised offers. Introducing a minimum tariff would limit universities ability to make local decisions based on their knowledge of the  communities they serve and would severely undermine the widening of university participation that has taken place under the current funding system by having a disproportionate impact on pupils from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds who may have been let down by the school system.

We all know about the booming private tuition industry. Better-off parents would be willing and able to help out financially for an extra private tuition or to enable an extra year resitting exams, or pay for grade boundary appeals. That is their right of course, but it would be highly naïve to think that this would not have an effect over time on the social distribution of student places in England.

The rationale for uncapping student numbers was to provide better access to universities for students from poorer backgrounds, on the basis that there was a vast amount of untapped talent missing out on higher education and the opportunities it brought for them and for the country. This policy would undermine that principle at the outset.

BAME applicants

An analysis of the UCAS data on level 3 qualifications and acceptances into university shows that in 2018, a greater proportion of BAME students were accepted onto a university course with A level grades of DDD or below than compared to white students. This is particularly acute for black A level students, with over 10% of those accepted onto a university course with a grade profile of DDD or lower. So pulling up the drawbridge for those students with lower attainment will affect BAME groups disproportionately, with black students being particularly badly affected.

Regions and localities

A blanket all-England minimum grade threshold would differentially hit localities and regions with lower average school or college attainment. We know from Office for Students research on the geography of prior academic attainment that this varies quite significantly by region. At a stroke, then, a grade threshold would hit regions beyond London and the South East of England with lower average attainment, disproportionately reducing the total numbers of prospective students eligible to go to university from areas like the North East or the East Midlands. This does not seem to be a wise (or fair) policy response to the concerns about communities and regions being ‘left behind’ following the Brexit debate.

Too many people doing a degree?

These would be the unintended but entirely predictable consequences of a grade threshold policy. Contrary to the impression you might get from some of the media we do not have too many people studying for degrees. Just under half of under 30’s in England have not studied at university and the UK is very much in line with Western countries in the proportion of people that experience higher education – and is somewhat behind world leading nations in HE participation such as South Korea.

As I have argued, we do need better Level 4 and 5 work-related and technical routes to high level skills, including apprenticeships and employer-sponsored degrees – but not by building an expectation that you follow one route if you achieve above a grade threshold, and the other if you are below it. If the government has the clear resolve to put the majority of younger people who do not currently have access to these higher levels on a genuine ‘skills escalator’, they need to address the lack of people achieving the level 3 (A level and B-tech) qualifications – and allow people to have a choice.

Back to Browne?

The minimum tariff proposal was originally featured as part of the Browne Review. In his final report, Browne did not recommend a minimum entry level, saying it should alter depending on the number of students vying for courses each year. It was then – and is now – a blunt financial rationing instrument taking no account of equality, diversity, talent or social mobility. It would remove the ability of universities to use their local knowledge and their knowledge of their academic support systems to make appropriate offers based on future potential of individuals, not their past performance.

The sector has worked with both a number cap and attempts to create a market, but a rigged system where central government seeks to control numbers by saying who can go to university based on historic performance is morally wrong and not supported by evidence of future success. It should be rejected before it is even proposed.

2 responses to “A brick wall in the way of social mobility

  1. “A rigged system where central government seeks to control numbers by saying who can go to university based on historic performance is morally wrong”

    Thank God for Dave Phoenix. Keep fighting the good fight!

  2. Depriving a student an opportunity through using a metric that is loaded with flaws is so very unfair. Good on Dave Phoenix for a very powerful and evidence based blog.

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