The UK government’s review of post-18 education in England is thought to be considering a plan to prevent students with low entry grades from accessing loans, modelling options that would see most applicants with grades below Ds or Es at A level in effect barred from university study.
Times Higher Education understands that the review, led by Philip Augar, is considering recommending the creation of a minimum Ucas tariff threshold for access to Student Loans Company funding, in order to limit or reduce student numbers at universities.
The review has modelled different levels for a potential threshold, such as two or three D grades or E grades at A level or equivalents, THE understands.
In this year’s admissions cycle, more than 80 per cent of applicants with grades equivalent to DDD at A level gained a higher education place.
Greg Walker, chief executive of MillionPlus, the association of modern universities, said: “Any attempt to smuggle in a student number cap in the guise of a minimum grade threshold would be a body blow to attempts to boost social mobility in England.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that “while only a small proportion of students have such low grades, a higher proportion of the most disadvantaged students do, so you will move backwards on widening participation overnight when you implement such a bar”.
Several sources suggested that the Augar review was also looking at an alternative option to control student numbers: using the government’s new graduate earnings data to block access to SLC funding for particular institutional courses with low levels of earnings. Given that the Longitudinal Education Outcomes data are widely regarded as having major flaws, any such move would invite legal challenge by universities.
The review’s terms state that its recommendations “must be consistent” with the government’s fiscal aims on the deficit and debt, while observers believe that the review has a long-standing plan to increase further education funding and to incentivise a non-degree alternative technical route – leading the review to work on methods to cap student numbers, and spending, in higher education.
The Association of Colleges said in its review submission that the government “should introduce a minimum entry qualification for access to bachelor degree higher education for those under the age of 21” – in effect a cap on student numbers in higher education.
The government’s 2010 Browne review recommended setting a Ucas tariff point threshold for student finance eligibility, a recommendation that ministers did not adopt.
Lord Willetts, who was universities minister at that time, said that when the idea of such a bar has been examined previously, the judgement has been that “it tends to be mature students who lose out in all this…it’s a barrier to [social] mobility.”
On the idea of exempting mature students from a loan bar, he said that this would create “different criteria for getting into university dependent on your age, which in turn raises a series of difficult problems”.
By law, universities have autonomy on admissions – although the government could attempt to argue that it was not setting admissions criteria, merely setting a threshold on eligibility for loans.
If the government wanted to implement an Augar recommendation to lower the tuition fee cap, it would need to pass secondary legislation in Parliament – and observers suggest that the same would be required to set a Ucas tariff bar on student loan eligibility. In a House of Commons where the government does not have a majority, such plans would be likely to fail, many observers think.