Assess GCSE entry bar impact on health workforce, ministers urged

Data suggest that high proportion of entrants to subjects like nursing are mature learners who took access routes  

October 26, 2021
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Ministers have been urged to assess the impact of a university minimum entry policy on degree training in key subjects like nursing and social work before enacting such a barrier.

The calls came as the Westminster government’s spending review was expected to unveil plans for GCSEs in maths and English to be used as a minimum requirement for access to government tuition fee loans in England.

Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that a relatively high proportion of students who take courses in nursing and other allied health disciplines are mature learners who have entered university by non-traditional routes, such as without A levels.

In 2019-20 there were 6,755 older entrants to full-time allied health degrees, including nursing, who had taken an access qualification to gain entry to higher education. This was around 44 per cent of new mature students to such degrees and 12 per cent of all full-time entrants in the subjects.

Almost 1,600 mature entrants on to social science subjects, which include degrees in social work, held an access qualification, which was more than a quarter of all older starters in the subject area. 

Courses such as the Access to HE diploma, which enables students without the necessary school-leaving qualifications to get the grounding needed to study for a degree, often require entrants to have a grade 4 at maths and English GCSE, the level that has been mooted for a minimum entry bar. Degree courses also typically specify such qualifications as a condition of entry.

However, it may be possible for some students to gain a degree place without such qualifications, such as if they have been able to prove the relevant competency in English and maths through other equivalent courses or alongside the access diploma itself.

The Quality Assurance Agency, which regulates Access to HE diplomas (which are usually offered by further education colleges), only has GCSE qualification data for 5 per cent of diploma students. But among these, up to 1 per cent still lack a grade 4 in English and maths.

Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, which admits dozens of students each year on to nursing, allied health or social work courses through access qualifications, said it was difficult to know precisely how many such people would be affected by a national entry requirement. One key consideration might be whether “equivalents” to GCSE would still be allowed, he said.

However, he warned that other government policies, such as the move to end public funding for many BTEC courses – another popular route into allied health degrees – could combine to create major problems in areas where there were already workforce shortages.

“We know that we have got to create more of a workforce [in these areas] so that does mean opening up new pathways into these professions,” said Professor West, the current Universities UK president.

“My view is levelling up and the needs for graduates in these particular areas mean we should be ensuring that we don’t put in place barriers for people that can succeed and qualify.”

He added that he hoped policymakers were considering the full evidence base for any decision. “You could be disadvantaging groups in very specific ways. I would assume that somewhere, somehow, somebody is doing that work.”

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

Mature (and other) students often complete catch up courses relevant to their profession. For example mature students enrolled on a nursing degree could either submit ancient GCSE / O level results slips or pass a couple of level 3 test relevant to their training. Why would you prevent an adult commence training for a profession if they are suitable in all qualifying aspects because they did not pass a particular exam when they were an immature 16 year old? ... Particularly when that profession has both a shortage and also requires specific personality traits?
The drawback is that certain levels of knowledge and skills are necessary to undertake study at this level, hence why many universities require all potential undergraduates to 'matriculate' before they start studying. If this is seen as a barrier, then prospective students lacking the requisite qualifications should be encouraged & assisted to get them (or undertake an equivalent like an 'Access' course) rather than be allowed to embark on their studies and maybe struggle or even fail.

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