In 2019-20, 95 per cent of full-time undergraduate students took out a tuition fee loan and 91 per cent took a maintenance loan.
Our research shows that all but the very wealthiest of students depend on loans to fund their higher education. Without loans, university is simply unaffordable, except for the rich. Yet the government is considering restricting access to student loans for those with low GCSE English and maths grades. This would hit primarily one student group – the most disadvantaged.
A regressive cap
This potential restriction on loan eligibility is a cap on student numbers, through the backdoor. But it is not a cap on all potential students, just the most deprived. Around a half of disadvantaged young people get grade 4 in English and maths GCSE compared with the national average of 71 per cent. And this attainment gap is growing. Others getting disappointing results live in some of the poorest regions in England, are more likely to be pupils from Black and White ethnic categories and to be young men.
The government’s own analysis confirms this policy would disproportionately affect students who are black and from ethnic minority groups, and those eligible for free school meals – coming from the poorest families.
A minimum university entry requirement signals an abandonment of any government concern about widening higher education participation, equality of opportunity, and nurturing social mobility – despite them claiming otherwise. It will cement existing social divides amongst young people at a time when these divisions are widening rather than narrowing. We already know that Covid has hit the educational progress of the most disadvantaged, most of all. This requirement will close off yet more opportunities to thousands of aspiring young people.
Limiting eligibility to student loans, and with it a university education, flies in the face of the ambitions of other government policies – undermining them. The entry requirement will exacerbate regional inequalities. It makes a mockery of the “levelling-up” agenda, the central role universities can play in this, and the government’s desire to tackle inequalities.
It could undermine the government’s skills agenda too, and their appeal for more flexible higher education provision which meets the needs of employers. The requirement will hit under 25 years olds with poorer prior educational attainment who are seeking a second chance.
For many such prospective students, higher education is a route out of poverty, poorly paid jobs, and an opportunity to re-skill and upskill in an ever-changing labour market. And how does this requirement fit with the much-hailed lifelong loan entitlement which is central to the government’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee? The new lifelong loan seeks to provide financial support to help people get the skills they need when they want. Eventually, they will replace the existing system of student loans.
So we can assume the new and old loans will have similar eligibility criteria? One aim of the lifelong loan entitlement is to encourage the take-up of more vocational and skills-based higher education courses, courses which in the past have tended to attract less academically orientated students. Will the target group for the lifelong loan entitlement qualify for the new loans, given that their prior academic achievement may well be lower than those taking the more traditional three-year full-time degree? Or is that they can get a loan so long as they do not take a degree course?
There are, of course, downsides to student loans with mounting levels of debt on graduation, accruing interest, and repayments that feel never-ending. But given the high tuition fees and in the absence of alternative sources of financial support, loans allow access to higher education among those who otherwise would be unable to go to university. Eligibility should not be restricted even more.