Plans to effectively stop students with lower grades entering higher education in England could include exemptions for disadvantaged students, while moves to lower fees could see full top-up public funding recommended, but allocated by subject area according to “cost of provision”.
Sector figures believe that both elements could feature in recommendations from the independent panel of the government’s post-18 education review.
The panel, whose report is said to have been passed by senior civil servants and gone to ministers, is expected to recommend preventing students with lower grades accessing loans for higher education courses – potentially setting the threshold at DDD A-level grades or equivalent, or a lower level.
But proposed exemptions for students from disadvantaged backgrounds with lower grades are said to have been under consideration, according to some in the sector. Exempting students from deprived areas as judged by participation of local areas (POLAR) classification – under which residential areas are broken into quintiles according to the proportion of their young people entering higher education – is thought to have been one example looked at in discussions.
Meanwhile, it is also expected that the review’s panel, led by Philip Augar, will recommend that tuition fees should be cut to £7,500 from their present level of £9,250 – but that the Treasury should fully replace the lost funding – an idea that many in the sector regard as fanciful. However, some in the sector believe that there is a plan to shift the allocation of funding: towards higher-cost science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects and away from lower-cost arts, humanities and social sciences degrees.
So while the average unit of resource could remain unchanged at £9,250 per student, that average could be allocated in a different way: with higher-cost subjects given the highest levels of direct public funding and some lower-cost subjects potentially given no top-up funding, leaving them reliant solely on fee income of £7,500 per student.
In terms of the minimum tariff threshold for loan access, the plan is likely to be supported by the Treasury, which will want to limit student numbers at universities, particularly in light of changes to the accounting treatment of student loans that will reclassify a portion of loan outlay as direct public spending.
A tariff threshold could also shift funding away from higher education towards the desperately underfunded further education sector, the likely destination for students with lower grades shut out of universities.
But the review panel is thought to be worried about the social mobility consequences of completely cutting off higher education access for low-grade students, who are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some in the sector speculate that, in addition to exemptions for students with lower grades from low participation areas as judged by POLAR data, exemptions could potentially be recommended for students who were entitled to free school meals, were from ethnic minority backgrounds, or were care leavers, for example.
However, the Treasury may take a different view on exemptions. Creating multiple exemptions could prevent the tariff threshold being effective as a cap on numbers.
Universities will hope that, when the government forms its response to the panel report, universities minister Chris Skidmore – who has been open in his opposition to the tariff threshold – and the Department for Education can make the idea of minimum entry standards disappear altogether.
Greg Walker, chief executive of the MillionPlus association of modern universities, said: “Two closely linked principles have underpinned admissions to higher education in the UK for decades – that universities are independent organisations that make decisions on who to admit free of government control – and that this is on the basis of ability to succeed, not the ability of prospective students to pay.
“However it might be hedged with exceptions, a grade threshold to access student loans would dismantle both of these long-held principles.”
Gordon McKenzie, chief executive of GuildHE and formerly a senior civil servant working on higher education, said that the tariff threshold plan “sounds like an idea from someone who’d never have to implement it – even without exemptions it would be complex and bureaucratic”.
He added: “Measures like POLAR and free school meals are large-scale ways of looking at disadvantage: using them to ration the chance of going to university would be bound to unfairly exclude individual, talented students.”
The review’s panel is expected to publish its report in April or May, a timescale that may be contingent on the Brexit situation.
Were the government to adopt plans to set a minimum tariff threshold for loan access and cut fees, both would require legislation in the House of Commons, where the government does not have a majority and where opponents could include Conservative MPs.