Gavin Williamson heralds GCSE grade bar for entry to university

Education secretary urges universities to go ‘further and faster’ on aligning courses with economic needs or government ‘will step in’

June 24, 2021

The education secretary has heralded the advent of a minimum GCSE grade requirement for entry to university in England, while urging universities to go “further and faster” in aligning courses with “the economy’s needs” or the government will “step in”.

Gavin Williamson, speaking at the Higher Education Policy Institute’s annual conference on 24 June, also singled out universities and courses deemed to be performing poorly on a new metric looking at proportions of students going into graduate-level jobs, in a sign of the likely targets for future policy.

Times Higher Education has previously reported that the Department for Education was looking at setting a requirement for students to pass a grade threshold at English and maths GCSE in order to access student loans to study at university. That idea is seen as a route to reducing student numbers – as ministers look to cut higher education spending – and to addressing the quality concerns of some in government.

Answering questions from Hepi director Nick Hillman after his speech, Mr Williamson said: “I do sort of find it hard to understand that if actually we haven’t got students passing a Level 2 [GCSE-level] qualification on English and maths, as to whether it is right to take that 18-year-old immediately on to a Level 6 [degree-level] qualification. I think that this is obviously something we’re going to be consulting on, in terms of minimum entry requirements.

“There has to be a very real question as to whether that is the right sort of progression and the right sort of route. We’re very much looking at how we develop that, and we’ll obviously consult on that and work closely with the sector on that.”

In his speech, the education secretary also questioned whether students without a pass in English and maths at GCSE level should go “straight” to a degree, saying the government would support students with the ability to enter higher education “if they have the desire and application to do so, as long as they can prove they are up to it”.

The government’s final response to the Augar review of post-18 education, which it says will come at the spending review, could bring major changes to higher education funding – potentially including not just a minimum entry requirement but a lowering of the tuition fee cap for non-STEM subjects.

“We must never forget that the purpose of education is to give people the skills that will lead to a fulfilling working life,” the education secretary said in his speech.

The Augar review had stressed the need for universities to provide courses that are “aligned with the economy’s needs”, Mr Williamson continued. “In this respect, we need universities to go further and act faster.

“They must support and drive regional growth and productivity, particularly where that is weak. To do this, they will need to change. And we will not be slow to step in if those changes are not happening.”

Universities “will need to offer more higher technical qualifications and apprenticeships – these should be geared to real jobs and the actual skills needs of local employers and the wider economy”, he added.

The education secretary also referred to the Proceed metric recently published for the first time by the Office for Students, which looks at the overall likelihood that a student entrant at a particular university will go on to a “positive” graduate outcome, defined mainly as “professional employment” or further study.

While this metric shows that higher education “remains a good investment for most”, at 25 higher education institutions “fewer than half the students who begin a degree will go on to graduate employment or further study”, Mr Williamson said.

He then singled out an unnamed university where 39 per cent of those enrolling in psychology went on to “graduate employment” or further study, a university where 38 per cent of those enrolling in biosciences did so and a university where 35 per cent of those enrolling in computing did so.

After each example, he repeated the mantra: “This is not good enough.” “This is clearly not providing the kinds of outcomes that students and taxpayers would expect,” he added.

The OfS is consulting on new quality and standards measures to target “low quality” courses, a regime expected to use Proceed in the future.

Mr Williamson said he expected the OfS consultation “to lead to real results”.

The education secretary also referred to the private member’s bill introduced by the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Storey that aims to stamp out essay mills, saying the government would “like to work with Lord Storey to see if we can deliver it”.

Mr Williamson closed his speech by saying universities would “play such a vital and pivotal role” in delivering the government’s “levelling up” objectives.

“We need to be changing what we did before,” he added. And he concluded by telling universities: “You are so important to our nation, our future, to delivery of the government’s aims.”

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Reader's comments (4)

I am all in favour of needing passes in Maths and English at GCSE - when I applied in the 1980s it was essential and one also needed a language, a science and usually something in humanities. However, I do take issue with the statement “We must never forget that the purpose of education is to give people the skills that will lead to a fulfilling working life”. This is NOT the purpose of education but just one of its byproducts. Its purpose is to get people into the land of the educated that will provide them with a better life in many ways, one of which is better employment prospects.
Well said, msl_csp
Is there an "upvote" option? If so I would give it to the two comments above. I'd go further - "education" (so-called) that is merely "geared to real jobs and the actual skills needs of local employers and the wider economy" is an education for the scrap-heap in ten years' time. In my graduate cohort many years ago with a major computer company, there were graduates in History, English, Theology and other "useless" fields. They had an advantage that no "skills training" can give: they knew how to learn and they knew how to think for themselves. In the modern fast-changing workplace this will be more necessary than ever.
Yes. Well said indeed. It is NOT just about the hard metrics of graduate level employment