What will MERs actually achieve?

For David Phoenix, government plans for minimum eligibility requirements don't mesh with regulatory plans to set outcome baselines

Professor David Phoenix is Vice Chancellor of London South Bank University.

At the end of March 2021, the balance of outstanding student loans in England reached £141 billion.

The sheer scale of this figure cannot be attributed to any single cause – but a variety of socio-economic factors including the impacts of a global financial crisis and viral pandemic, staggering levels of entrenched geographical disparity across the UK, and political decisions stretching back more than a decade have all played a part.

However, listening to recent political rhetoric, one could be forgiven for thinking that the fault lay entirely at the feet of higher education institutions – for teaching the “wrong” subjects; recruiting the “wrong” students, or not being able to ameliorate all of the cumulative effects of some students’ socioeconomic disadvantage within three years of full time undergraduate study.

Reducing the numbers

The Westminster government’s latest response to this issue has been to propose minimum eligibility requirements (MERs) – restricting access to student finance for prospective undergraduates who do not have the equivalent of either a pass in their English and Maths GCSE or two Es at A level. In doing so, ministers have suggested that universities accepting students on to courses without such baseline qualifications are setting them up to fail.

In reality, these qualifications, in particular Level 2 English and maths, do not provide the neat indicator of academic ability that the Department for Education thinks they do. Research from the Nuffield Foundation, compiled between 2018 and 2021, has shown that GCSE “low attainers” missing either English or maths typically had an average of eight GCSE passes overall, one fewer than the non-low attainer average. While having strong English and maths qualifications are, of course, important, these are not the only indicators of success, and if this is to be used to deny students direct entry to a degree the case needs to be clear and strong.

Framework failure

The proposals are supposed to ensure only students able to succeed proceed to entry. This use of MERs doesn’t make sense in the context of a risk based, outcome focused quality framework. The Office for Students has recently concluded a consultation on introducing minimum thresholds for students’ continuation from year one to year two; for course completion; and for progression into graduate employment or further study – all of which providers will be held accountable for. If introduced, providers (and parts of providers) falling short of these uncontextualised baselines will face investigation and potential penalties from the OfS.

If implemented in the way OfS has described, this policy would render minimum entry requirements redundant. Firstly, because it would create a strong incentive for universities not to recruit applicants that they felt wouldn’t be able to complete their course and go on to secure graduate employment. And secondly, because if a university was recruiting students without GCSEs in English and maths but still exceeding these thresholds it would demonstrate the arbitrariness of implementing such a barrier to progression in the first place. In this context, the argument that the government, through central decision making, determines who enters university is flawed and runs counter to the proposed quality framework currently being implemented.

Not for the likes of you

One thing that a progression barrier to the next academic level is sure to achieve is reinforcing the perception that one route is superior to another. In this instance, that the academic route is superior to technical.

Given that it is currently a major part of the government’s education strategy to increase the number of learners in technical subjects – having spent millions of pounds developing new qualifications such as T levels and HTQs – this is ironic, as technical qualifications will never command the esteem of academic ones if they are offered as an alternative for those “not yet qualified by ability or attainment to pursue higher education.”

And there is a question of timing. The first HTQs – the technical Level 4/5 qualifications being developed by the DfE to act as an alternative to bachelor’s degrees will become available this September – with a full roll-out by 2026. Even then, these new routes will take time to become embedded and widely recognised by employers, learners and parents.

The Office for Students, meanwhile, intends to implement minimum thresholds this September. If the Department for Education were to instigate MERs within a similar timeline, then we would be setting up a gateway to push some learners down a route that doesn’t fully exist yet.

While the use of minimum entry requirements might make sense to officials in the Treasury, the educational arguments of limiting opportunity simply don’t stack up. MERs are more likely to further discriminate against those from disadvantaged backgrounds; undermine the positive work being undertaken to develop and promote technical education; and work against the new OfS approach to quality assurance.

2 responses to “What will MERs actually achieve?

  1. The government gaslight somewhat here: loans are created using the fractional reserve system and paid off with taxes after a 25-year period. Thus the government might have created £141bn of debt to pay for higher education but the end cost to the taxpayer (and thus the treasury) is currently next to nothing because the majority of student debt from 1997 (or prior) was privatised ie sold off.

    We are in a precarious position by increasing debt year-upon-year, making our entire higher education system mostly debt-driven. I am sure the governments of 2039 will not appreciate the larger amounts of writeoff they will have to pay for which is is shy increasing the period to 40 years makes some sense as it will mean the governments of 2063 onwards will be thankful for the measures.

    But we also know how large government debts really work. Britain didn’t even start repaying its WW1 debts until 2014, along with finishing paying for Napoleonic debt and reparations for slave owners during abolition.

  2. Back in July 2012 – before the student funding reforms – the OBR projected in its Fiscal Sustainability Report that student loan debt would reach 5% of forecast GDP or equivalent to £126bn at current prices based on the forecasts the OBR made for real GDP.

    The actual figure is not massively different to that especially considering the policy changes that have been made – especially increasing the repayment threshold, switching maintenance grants to loans and removing the student numbers cap – combined with the lacklustre economic performance.

    The issue isn’t about there being a lot more student loan debt than predicted, it’s about the government having a massive change of heart about how much public funding it wants to allocate to higher education compared to when David Cameron was PM.

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