DfE job includes dealing with higher education access bar

Advert for student finance director post indicates minimum entry requirement idea proceeding, as sources suggest government may use GCSEs rather than A levels

April 16, 2021

The Westminster government wants a new student finance director to deal with “minimum entry requirements” for higher education, indicating that it is proceeding with such a plan amid suggestions that it could set an admissions bar using GCSEs rather than A levels.

The Department for Education is expected to consult imminently on a minimum entry requirement to obtain student loans to study at universities – which would be fiercely opposed by much of the sector as impinging on the legal autonomy of universities in their admissions, as well as imposing unfair requirements on students after school exams have been interrupted by the pandemic.

But a Department for Education job advertisement for a higher education student finance director, which closes on 19 April, already says “key responsibilities” will include: “Overall responsibility for the government’s response to the higher education recommendations in the Augar review of post-18 funding and finance, including student finance terms and conditions, minimum entry requirements and the treatment of foundation years amongst other matters”.

The idea of reducing the number of students going to English universities by restricting access to higher education student loans appeals to a government whose ministers have criticised university expansion and which wants to cut the amount of money it spends on the student loans system.

The Augar review floated the idea of a “contextualised minimum entry threshold for access to Level 6 student finance for students under the age of 25”, but it did not include that in its recommendations. The government’s interim response to the report said it would consider “elements mentioned in the Augar report, including…minimum entry requirements to higher education institutions”.

The Augar review panel is thought to have examined using a DDD threshold at A level or equivalent – meaning that anyone with grades below that threshold would not be able to access higher education student loans.

But sector sources suggest that key figures in government appear to have accepted that using A-level or equivalent grades would be too severe and unjust. Setting a threshold requirement for grades in English and maths GCSEs is the alternative option likely to be pursued, they believe.

Making English and maths GCSEs a prerequisite for entry to higher education has previously been discussed in government, Times Higher Education understands. Those driving the idea of a minimum entry requirement are said to have argued that using GCSEs could be more effective in ensuring that students being accepted by some lower tariff universities had the ability to cope with a higher education course, as looking at A-level grades at D level could not be relied upon to ensure student retention and success, they believed.

Requirements for minimum grades in English and maths GCSEs, termed “functional skills” requirements, are already set for apprenticeships.

If any such plan emerges for higher education, universities’ concerns would include the relevance of English and maths for some degree study. Any requirement for creative arts undergraduates to reach a GCSE maths grade threshold, for example, is likely to provoke criticism.


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