Augar response set to restrict English student numbers

Westminster government appears set to publish consultation on series of policy changes, including minimum entry requirements

February 23, 2022
UK houses of parliament
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The Westminster government will publish long-awaited policy plans for English higher education this week, including minimum entry requirements to study at university and student number controls, and purportedly the biggest increase in teaching funding “in over a decade”.

The government will publish its response to the Augar review of post-18 education, which reported in May 2019, on 24 February, launching a consultation on a series of planned changes aimed at cracking down on what ministers deem “low value” courses at some universities.

As expected, the proposals will include plans for minimum entry requirements, under which students would have to obtain GCSE English and maths at grade 4 (a “standard pass”) to be eligible for student loan funding to study at a higher education institution, The Daily Telegraph reported on 23 February.

There would also be an alternative proposal to set the minimum entry requirement at EE grades at A level and equivalent qualifications, the Telegraph said.

The Department for Education billed ministers as offering a “pledge to invest in lifelong flexible learning with a renewed focus on ensuring better graduate outcomes”.

The DfE said: “Plans are expected to be laid out to introduce a lifelong loan entitlement (LLE) worth the equivalent of four years of post-18 education to support students to study, train, retrain or upskill throughout their lives through flexible courses.” The LLE plan is already under way in legislation introduced to Parliament, although key details on aspects including eligibility are yet to be announced, and the DfE’s wording might indicate that there will be a consultation launched this week on the LLE.

The department also said: “The government will seek views on how to ensure young people are encouraged to pursue the right path for them and receive a fair deal for their investment if they choose to go to university. This includes considering the introduction of minimum eligibility requirements, to ensure students aren’t being pushed into higher education before they are ready, and student number controls, so that poor-quality, low-cost courses aren’t incentivised to grow uncontrollably.”

The mention of student number controls in relation to “low-cost” courses might seem to indicate that the planned controls are a response to the LLE – as full degrees are currently uniformly priced at the £9,250 annual tuition fee cap.

The department added that the announcement by education secretary Nadhim Zahawi and higher and further education minister Michelle Donelan was “expected to confirm nearly £900 million of new investment in higher education, including an additional £750 million, which will be invested in high-quality teaching and facilities, including in science and engineering, subjects that support the NHS and degree apprenticeships. This includes the largest increase in government funding for the HE sector to support students and teaching in over a decade.”

The DfE could not immediately clarify whether this funding, or elements of it, had previously been announced.

This funding “will also establish a new national scholarship scheme to improve access for high-achieving disadvantaged students to either higher or further education or to an apprenticeship”, the department said. “The higher education consultation is expected to include considerations for options for the design and eligibility of these scholarships, such as whether to target students by reference to a range of criteria, such as household income and achieving certain grades at A level.”

Times Higher Education, the first to report that the government was considering using GCSE grades to set a minimum entry bar, in March 2021, was previously told that there was debate in government over whether to set the bar using GCSE grade 4 or 5, the latter being a “strong pass”.

If the government does opt for a grade 4 bar, that may be judged as having relatively little impact for the sector as a whole. There was previously a figure said to be in circulation in government of 4,000 for the number of students currently at higher education institutions without grade 4 at GCSE English and maths, THE has reported.

On student number controls, abolished in England in 2015, the Telegraph said it was “likely that ‘low quality’ will be defined as those with a high number of students dropping out and a low proportion getting a graduate job or entering further study once they have completed their degrees”.

A DfE spokesman said: “Our universities are a great British success story. They are powerhouses of innovation and are playing a key part in revolutionising the skills system, helping making lifelong learning possible with more flexibility and technical training.

“But we need to ensure that we are creating opportunities that will not only open doors but will develop the talent our country needs to prosper now and in the future.

“Higher education is an investment, and we need to ensure that graduates are being rewarded for the money, time and effort they put into their studies with an educational experience and jobs that match their skills and help contribute to the economy”.

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