You know those signs at fairgrounds that say, “You must be this tall to ride”. Well the (Westminster) government is contemplating erecting something similar at the door of English higher education.
After a two-year wait, much of the sector was disappointed not to see – as previously promised – a final response to the Augar Review in last month’s spending review. One announcement that I was relieved not to hear was a decision on former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s suggestion that students should need GCSE passes in English and Maths before qualifying for taxpayer-funded student loans.
The respite may be short-lived. The universities minister has promised announcements in the coming weeks and there are even rumours of a higher education white paper.
Some might argue that there’s little harm in such a modest minimum entry requirement proposal. After all, higher education, as the name implies, is for those who have reached heights of study. If a student cannot use maths and english to a certain standard, perhaps we should not allow them to progress to degree level studies?
How many people might this affect anyhow? Surely there cannot be many students who would be blocked by such a low bar.
Indeed, there aren’t. Almost by definition, the only people who embark on degree courses without such qualifications fall into exceptional circumstances.
There are the students whose education was interrupted by illness – cancer, long Covid, mental ill health – and other conditions that kept them from taking their exams at the usual time.
There are the students whose personal circumstances – family break-up, homelessness, bereavement, refuge – created breaks in their education at critical times.
There are older learners who underachieved when young or who left school early, but who now, with a foundation course from the university of life, want to translate their experience into recognised qualifications.
There are neurodiverse learners – such as those with dyslexia or dyscalculia – who may have struggled with the specific challenges of GCSE qualifications, but who may have mastered skills and knowledge more directly relevant to their chosen area of study.
And there are the students who simply had the misfortune to be badly taught, either because the school system failed them or because of disruption to their teaching. (There’s been plenty of that lately.)
The government’s new funding rules could, of course, make exceptions for these circumstances. And for others I haven’t mentioned. However, by the time they’ve excepted everyone, there will be no one left to bar. The rules would be caught between being either cruelly unfair or cravenly pointless. Possibly both.
The spirit of the law
Each student is an individual and their case is best judged in context. That’s what happens now of course. Higher education institutions (HEIs) consider why they haven’t got these particular qualifications (although, in order to apply, they will have others at a higher level) and they judge whether the student would be able thrive on the course to which they have applied. They will often think about what extra support the student may need, if any, and whether they can provide it before or after the start of the course.
The Higher Education Research Act (2017) explicitly recognised HEIs’ autonomy over their admissions criteria just so they could make this kind of judgement. For the government to impose minimum entry requirements then is surely a breach of that autonomy enshrined in law?
Actually, no, because the government is not – may not – do that (not without legislation, which is a possibility). Instead, it is removing the funding from such students. The fact that that amounts to the same thing means that minimum entry requirements do not technically breach the law. Only the spirit of it.
So given that so few prospective students would fall foul of the restrictions, why would the government bother to impose any?
The answer is, of course, money. To reduce the cost of HE to the taxpayer, the government needs to recover more of the cost of loans (which is another announcement that wasn’t in the spending review), reduce the cost per student (which would damage quality) or reduce the number of students – i.e. impose a cap. Given the choice of an arbitrary cap or an apparently meritocratic one, you can understand the reckoning.
Minimum entry requirements mean fewer students. Maybe not many fewer if the bar is set at GCSE Maths and English, but, whenever politics meet student funding, the rule is to start small and build.
The history since the 1980s of grants becoming “top-up” maintenance loans, which became full loans, which became top-up tuition fees, which become larger fees, which became even larger ones, is an object lesson in the slow boiling of a frog in a cold pan.
The point of setting a low bar of entry requirements is not to cut student numbers radically from day one, because it won’t. Rather it is to introduce the concept that HEIs’ autonomy over their admissions is conditional. Each small subsequent change to those minimum entry requirements will be a slight turning of the gas dial under the pan until the bar has risen to exclude all but those with higher grades at A-level.
Look out! It’s a trap!
For now though the bar is set to a level that appears to be a reasonable standard to expect of any student of higher learning.
In the process, the government has, perhaps inadvertently, achieved the feat of catching potential opponents in two contradictory traps at the same time. Any universities resisting the bar on a point of principle can be portrayed simultaneously as not only ivory tower extremists who demand uncompromising autonomy and academic exceptionalism, but also grubby exploiters of students, enticing them into “Mickey Mouse” courses that have been dumbed down so much that even a student without basic GCSEs can get in.
The higher education sector must tread carefully. Minimum entry requirements are a potential culture war minefield.
Those of us who do want to oppose them must talk about who won’t get to go on the fairground ride – those to whom life has already been unkind, those who are in greatest need of a second chance, those for whom higher education is likely to provide the greatest transformation.
If we want public funding to work hard at creating change, it is important to spend it where it will make the most difference. If we want to level up, to generate social mobility and to meet skills needs, then blanket minimum entry requirements will do nothing more than close doors.