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Is there life on MERs?

A new report from IFS illustrates some of the major issues with DfE's proposed minimum eligibility requirements for fee loans. David Kernohan has thoughts.
This article is more than 2 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The Institute for Fiscal Studies is not impressed by the idea of minimum eligibility requirements (MERs) for student finance – at least, not the versions out for consultation from the Department for Education.

A short, but densely argued, briefing note reports that (for the 2011-12 GCSE cohort) forty per cent of pupils did not get above grade 4(equivalent to a low C) in English and maths, but that only around 9 per cent of this group went on to study at university. This is twice the proportion in OECD countries (but the usual vagaries of comparisons using OECD data apply).

At the higher levels of prior attainment only two per cent of those who attended university failed to attain the equivalent of two Es at A level. A big part of this is due to universities’ own entry requirements – minimum entry requirements here would conflict directly with provider autonomy in choosing to admit people they think would benefit from the course (for example, choosing great musicians to attend a prestigious conservatoire via audition rather than based whether or not they did A levels).

Low attainment is more common among entrants on free school meals, among those from an ethnic minority (particularly a Black ethnic minority) background, and among those who attended state rather than private schools. Unless a MER was applied contextually, applicants from these groups would be significantly more likely to be unable to access higher education without further study at level 2 or 3.


If you think of MERs as a way of ensuring that only people able to benefit from university education get funds to go to university, then IFS finds already under-represented groups would face a disproportionate impact – especially at GCSE level.

it is not clear that the MER proposed would achieve this – or at least it might do so but only at the cost of excluding many who would experience good degree outcomes. Additionally, unless it is set at such a low level as to affect virtually no one, a blanket MER would disproportionately affect groups of students who are already under-represented in higher education

However the arc of Blakeism is bending in the world of widening access and participation, a policy decision that has a particularly powerful impact on those that do not currently get to university is probably going to present an issue. Both of the options on the table would need to be softened to level the entry playing field – with contextual admissions being one obvious fix.

What you get out of it

Perhaps you think that MERs will spur applicants on to higher achievement at levels two or three. IFS notes:

despite the existing requirement for students in full-time post-16 education to continue studying English and maths if they have not achieved passes in these subjects, many still leave education without these basic qualifications

And it does feel unlikely that the people who leave full time education without English and maths qualifications would be the group incentivised to do better by the chance of a university place.

It might be that you see MERs as a way of reducing the number of students on “low quality” courses, however you currently wish to define these. Surely in that case, actually incentivising providers to offer courses you do like, or encouraging applicants to consider them, would be the best way forward? IFS also observes that targeting students with low prior attainment could have:

important unintended consequences for the provision of courses such as social work and education which, though low-earning, are unlikely to be considered by the government as ‘low-value’.

If you’d like that fact in graphical form, here’s WP8 (which is the closest we get from HESA on statistics about this)

[Full screen]

There are, and have always been, subject areas that demand particularly high prior attainment – either as a selection mechanism or because a particular subject area requires certain prerequisite knowledge or experience.

What about outcomes?

If you take one purpose of an MER policy as to filter out people who might not do well on the course, you’ll not be surprised to see additions to the overwhelming existing evidence that prior attainment has an impact on degree classifications. Around 80 per cent of students without GCSE maths and English at grade 4 get a degree (compare 95 per cent of other students) and 40 per cent get a first or 2:1 (compare 75 per cent). Proportions are broadly similar for students without two Es at A level.

One note I would add to the IFS findings would be that we know (from previous IFS research, in fact!) that different types of providers are more likely to give firsts and 2:1s – and the places that it is more likely a student with good grades will end up (more selective providers) offer more of them. There’s a similar subject area effect too.

There’s a tentative wave of the hand at salary issues – we know high prior attainment is link to higher graduate salaries, but we don’t know how much of this is this a contextual effect (kids with rich parents go on to earn more), how much is a signalling effect linked to the perceived status of the university, and how much is about the intrinsic qualities of a graduate him or her self.

There’s not enough good evidence to go on here. But it feels unlikely that excluding the less well off will end graduate under-employment. It certainly won’t do anything for levelling up or productivity.

One response to “Is there life on MERs?

  1. One point that should be noted on the IFS analysis is that it only includes those “who started a full-time undergraduate degree at age 18 or 19” and so it does underplay the impact – lots of those who are potentially affected by MERs study a part-time degree or enter HE when they are aged 20 or over

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