Minister restates opposition to student loan grade threshold

Chris Skidmore tells MPs he is yet to see a copy of the Augar review’s report

May 15, 2019
Chris Skidmore

England’s universities minister has reiterated his opposition to a ban on students with lower grades accessing student loans, an expected recommendation of the country’s review of post-18 education.

Chris Skidmore told the House of Commons Education Select Committee on 15 May: “I disagree with any minimum entry requirements and I will continue to say so.”

The post-18 review, led by Philip Augar, is believed to have modelled scenarios in which students would have to meet a minimum grade threshold of DDD at A level to access Student Loans Company funding. With the exception of students from the most privileged backgrounds, failure to get a student loan would effectively bar applicants from entering higher education.

Speaking previously to Times Higher Education, Mr Skidmore said that he opposed a threshold because it would not take account of the obstacles faced by students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

Mr Skidmore told the committee that he was “recently at the University of Huddersfield – and I hope he doesn’t mind me saying – where the vice-chancellor [Bob Cryan] is a fellow of the Royal Society of Engineering, a renowned professor in his field, but he didn’t get three Ds”.

In response to these sorts of concerns, the Augar panel is said to have considered introducing exemptions from the thresholds for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

But Mr Skidmore added that any threshold could also pose a significant barrier to mature learners, who may have developed later in life after not getting the right grades at school.

The minister also said that he hoped the Augar review would explore the possibility of reintroducing maintenance grants, which were scrapped in 2015, for the most disadvantaged.

But Mr Skidmore told the committee that he had not yet seen a draft of the Augar review’s report, which is reported to have been submitted to the Department for Education.

A series of interventions on university issues by Damian Hinds, the education secretary, have been seen by some as an attempt to wrest back control of the higher education policy agenda from Mr Skidmore, in light of the junior minister’s “sector-friendly” stance. Mr Hinds has been seen as being keener to push through any recommendations that come out of the review.

Matthew Toombs, director of student finance and analysis at the DfE, told MPs that the review report “will be shortly complete. When it is complete it will be published.”

Mr Skidmore also said that he disagreed with Anthony Wallersteiner, the headmaster of the £12,000-a-term Stowe School, who complained that private school pupils were being edged out of places at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge by widening participation policies which amounted to “social engineering”. 

Mr Skidmore said that some Russell Group institutions needed to realise that it is “on them that they need to raise their performance of state entry and disadvantaged pupils”.

He said that the sector needed “to change the narrative so you can only be called an excellent university if you are doing this work”.

“I think a system-wide change is something we will need to embrace to break this, because the numbers [on disadvantaged student entry to elite institutions] are unjustifiable,” he added.

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