Below the bar. Why minimum entry standards are a bad idea.

There’s a murmur out there in the higher education policy world.

A little rumbling. You could easily have missed it on the HEPI blog recently. Alongside some good points on unconditional offers, there’s the introduction of a term we’re going to hear more about in the near future: “minimum entry standard”.

You first thought might reasonably be: “Entry qualifications fit squarely within the bounds of institutional autonomy. Jog on.” But what about a control on who can access the student support system? “Three Cs, madam? No, there’s no loan available for you.”

Now, this is a problem for plenty of reasons. These include, but are probably not limited to, the following:

  1. Where does this leave contextual admissions? We could have different minima which take into account the correlations between social privilege and school performance, but what are the chances of this kind of nuanced policy?
  2. Where does experiential learning fit it? Not all students do A-levels or are aged 17 on application to university. Wouldn’t minimum qualifications disenfranchise some older prospective students or those who’ve taken other routes?
  3. How do you express a qualifications minimum across all types of pre-university learning, including combinations of awards and over decades of different types (and standards) of award?
  4. It’s a number control. The chances are that this would be dressed up as “these are students that won’t succeed in HE, so we’re doing them a favour by excluding them”, but let’s call a spade a number control when we see it.
  5. There will be a way around it. As I wrote recently for Wonkhe, the scourge of unconditional offers (amongst other consequences such as grade inflation) is a consequence of the marketised system as designed and implemented. There are easy ways around unconditional offers – make very low offers. There will be ways around minimum qualifications.

The level of intrusion into the workings of universities continues apace. I’m sure that there are plenty of good reasons – as well as the bad ones – for this approach. But all the tinkering does no-one any good. It’s not a useful commitment of time or energy from the regulator. It’s not going to do students any good, not least in this case those students for whom university could be a major opportunity that they’d miss out on because of a minimum standards policy.

Devil’s advocate

While I’m not a fan, I suspect that there will be many voices (perhaps ones much louder than mine) which make the strong case for minimum standards. There’s a strong thread in the commentary about universities that “too many students” are going, and the system is too expensive and that avaricious vice chancellors are simply putting “bums on seats” with any student with a pulse. While minimum standards is a way of responding to all of these charges, what the policy wouldn’t do is address the basic incentives for universities, it would just make things even more fiercely competitive.

Is there a way of satisfying everyone? One way could be to reward universities for the value that they add to students’ outcomes. And outcomes not measured in terms of degree classifications which are in the control of the provider, but jobs, salaries, further study, and so on. A system like that would reward the universities which were able to admit the students with the lowest grades, but only those which could demonstrate that there admissions decisions were the right ones. The idea that the government should judge whether a student is “good enough” to attend a university ignores many important factors, not least the transforming capacity of universities. This would take some implementing, but a bit more focus on carrots and less on sticks could be a good use of policymakers’ time.  

The withering cynic

I admit it. I’m critical. But there are – or could be at least – good uses of the time and energy of the minister’s or officials’ attention. There’s a mountain of work to do on fair access to the most selective universities. There’s even more to do to make sure that every student, once admitted to university, has a fair chance of rewarding (cash and broader definitions) employment. Why not put energy into ensuring that a post-Brexit higher education sector is as internationally engaged as possible (across staff, students, research, teaching)? Sadly the focus of attention isn’t determined by what needs attention, but by whim, distraction and power games.

If the murmuring about minimum standards turns into the next great ill-thought-through policy intervention then we have a lot to be worried about. Expecting better seems futile.

5 responses to “Below the bar. Why minimum entry standards are a bad idea.

  1. A system which measures how well universities achieve outcomes (jobs, salaries, further study) whilst taking into account the grades they entered on? We already have that mechanism: it’s called the TEF.

  2. TEF doesn’t take entry grades into account. It also measure how well students achieve outcomes (jobs, salaries, further study) and doesn’t make any kind of argument for institutional causality. It’s a great measure of an institution’s ability to recruit the kind of students that go on to well-paid graduate jobs.

  3. How would this affect the Open University who don’t have any entry standards? I suspect it would decimate their customer base which has a lot of mature student and people from non traditional educational backgrounds, and being an OU student and a HE admin myself I don’t think minimum entry standards are a good idea.

  4. David, TEF does take entry grades into account. This is a factual point.

    All the metrics you’ve referred to are benchmarked by prior attainment. Other factors being equal, a provider with entrants gaining 3As will have a higher benchmark for – e.g. – highly skilled employment than one with entrants with 3Ds and therefore will need a higher highly skilled employment rate to get a positive flag. That’s why providers such as Derby or Portsmouth can get a Gold.

    I don’t want to get into a broader debate here about TEF or whether it should be measuring employment. But the fact that it takes prior attainment into account is simple fact.

  5. I’m not sure how the system you recommend would disincentivise universities to recuit the most employable students anyway.

    We know that quality, useful education isn’t just about graduate outcomes in the economic sense, so lets not go down that route just to argue against another unpalatable policy.

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