The impact of a minimum entry requirement for access to student finance

John Cope shares UCAS modelling on how a minimum entry requirement for higher education would change patterns of access

John Cope is director of strategy, policy, and public affairs at UCAS

Minimum entry requirements for student finance remain on the table as a potential part of Augar implementation. Previously the assumption had been that minimum entry requirements would be at level three: A levels and equivalents. This now looks to have shifted to level two: GCSEs and equivalents.

The purported logic behind the policy varies depending on who you talk to. Some see it as a tool to reduce student numbers, and therefore the cost to the taxpayer of higher education. Another logic is that expecting reasonable numeracy and literacy when going to university should be a given and will reduce dropouts if better enforced.

Level three is the most common method of assessing the potential of a student, with level two playing a lesser but still important part in the application process – most universities and colleges list GCSE Maths and English as requirements already. Indeed, GCSE performance is the single biggest predictor of level 3 performance with UCAS research finding strong GCSE results correlate strongly with an applicant’s predicted grades at A level.

Many regulated professions, such as nursing, engineering, or law have strict level two requirements, meaning using it as a tool in admissions is well established. As such minimum entry requirements as a concept is not new, but an evolution of existing admissions practices.

But there is a lurking question of policy consistency – would the lifelong loan entitlement or degree apprenticeships have a minimum entry requirements , or would it just cover three-year undergraduate degrees at 18/19 years old? Without consistency, there is a risk that access could become skewed based on age and form of learning, with the logic for applying minimum entry requirements to mature learners or degree apprentices feeling shaky.

GCSE maths and English grade 4

Here we model the impact for state school pupils in England who turned 18 in the 2019-2020 academic year. 58.5 per cent of students in this group have a grade 4 or above in English and maths, while 38.1 per cent have a grade 5 or above in English and maths.

The analysis for a grade 4 in English, maths, and science would, on the whole, just make the effect more pronounced, rather than delivering a radically different outcome. The impact would be also pretty much the same if minimum entry requirements were implemented at level three, rather than GCSE. For this article, we make the reasonable assumption that minimum entry requirements would be set at grade 4 in English and maths.

On the positive side, among applicants there is no gender gap, as 10.8 per cent of male and 10.5 per cent of female applicants would miss the minimum entry requirements bar. But when you dive into the data for the pupil population, it becomes clear who this minimum entry requirements bar would disproportionately impact. Students on free school meals and black pupils especially are the two (overlapping) groups that statistically would be more likely to not meet a minimum entry requirements bar. In some cases, this is stark. In particular, only 34.5 per cent of pupils on free school meals would meet the minimum entry requirements bar, compared to 62.1 per cent not on free school meals.

Raising attainment in schools and colleges to close the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers would therefore be critical before a minimum entry requirement was implemented, or else we risk taking a step back on levelling up opportunity. Indeed, the Augar review cautioned on minimum entry requirements given the impact on disadvantaged students.

One solution, while a large attainment gap for disadvantaged students continues to exist, would be contextualisation of the application with a student’s socio-economic background. This creates new issues, however, including the potential for a situation where two pupils at the same school or college, with the same grades and same higher education offer would have different outcomes, with one “moderated” over the minimum entry requirements bar, and the other not.

What would minimum entry requirements mean for levelling up?

The picture here is not clear cut. While north/south differences are apparent, it is within a relatively narrow band.

Region % that meet minimum entry requirements
London 62.5%
South East 62.1%
East of England 60.2%
South West 60.2%
East Midlands 58.2%
North West 57.6%
Yorkshire and The Humber 57.5%
North East 57.4%
West Midlands 55.6%

Given the average is 58.5 per cent, students in the West Midlands, the North, and Yorkshire would have marginally less access to student finance under a minimum entry requirements. It’s important to also recognise the South East and London have the largest populations of 18 year olds, so while the proportion is relatively close, the absolute gap is much more significant.

Subjects and types of institutions

Level two minimum entry requirements would have a differential impact across types of universities and colleges, as well as subjects. It will come as zero surprise to anyone that universities which have lower entry requirements (commonly lumped together as “lower tariff” universities) would be impacted more. 81 per cent meet minimum entry requirements for lower tariff providers, 90.7 per cent for middle tariff providers, and 98.2 per cent for higher tariff providers (roughly synonymous with the Russell Group, but not the same as).

The impact on subjects isn’t dramatic on the whole, apart from a few areas. 88.4 per cent of applicants in non-STEM subjects meet the minimum entry requirements, while the figure is 91.2 per cent in STEM subjects.

When you dig a little deeper, you find subjects like Medicine and Dentistry almost unaffected with 99.6 per cent meeting minimum entry requirements, while creative arts and design come off worse with 83 per cent meeting minimum entry requirements. Shortage areas such as education and computer science however also don’t fare too well, with 84.3 per cent and 85 per cent meeting minimum entry requirements respectively.

If the desired policy outcome of a minimum entry requirement is to reduce the number of students getting public finance support in lower tariff institutions and studying creative arts or design, the policy would be effective.

Everyone else

Applicants hold a variety of level two qualifications, so minimum entry requirements would need to recognise that nuance. In England in 2020, around 88 per cent of level twos were GCSEs, five per cent were iGCSEs, and one per cent were BTEC awards, with the remaining six per cent being made up of other smaller qualifications. Expanding to UK applicants of all ages and domiciles, the GCSE coverage drops to around 70 per cent, with other qualifications, such as National 5s (four per cent) featuring more prominently.

Mature students are more likely to present a wider range of level two qualifications, including BTEC Nationals at level two, functional or key skills, or an intermediate apprenticeship. The introduction of any minimum entry requirements would therefore need to have specific consideration for mature learners and institutions like the Open University.

The Augar review suggests: “were a minimum entry requirement introduced, it should apply only to students under the age of 25.” Were this recommendation to be applied, we would introduce the concept of age-based access into student finance – and potentially 23 or 24 year olds delaying their application for a year or two. Indeed, withholding access to student finance based on age enters tricky legal territory.

If minimum entry requirements are going to be introduced in order to secure student finance, thought must be given as to how the impact on the most disadvantaged students is addressed prior to implementation.

While John Blake, the new Director of Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students, has raising disadvantaged pupils’ attainment specifically in his mandate from the new Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi, swiftly implementing a blunt minimum entry requirements based on grade 4 at English and maths at GCSE could knock away the ladder of opportunity student finance creates from thousands of disadvantaged students.

While some of these pupils could choose to do an apprenticeship or technical qualification instead, do we really want to risk encouraging a situation where higher education is for higher attainers and the more affluent, while apprenticeships are a consolation prize for the disadvantaged? That doesn’t necessarily feel like parity of esteem.

2 responses to “The impact of a minimum entry requirement for access to student finance

  1. I have ordered the popcorn in advance for the momentus day a Universities Minister stands up in Parliament to proudly announce success in the policy of reducing the number of poor and black people in higher education.

    I am a bit worried though, as a former mature student with no Level 2 GCSE in maths, that I might have ordered the wrong quantity of popcorn. And will I have to hand back my Doctorate and Professorship?

  2. Meanwhile apprenticeships enable learners to access HE without English and Maths, though they have to have met them by Gateway stage (and supported by the HEI to do so whilst on programme as it impacts on our achievement rates on which we are judged). It all makes perfect sense…

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