Minimum entry grades ‘would increase degree access inequality’

Former director of fair access Chris Millward says government move to cut university places ‘serious prospect’ but unlikely to succeed

January 12, 2022
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An attempt by the Westminster government to cut the number of university places available to young people in England is a “serious prospect” but unlikely to succeed, while any minimum entry requirement would increase social divisions, according to the former director of fair access and participation.

Chris Millward, who left the role at the Office for Students at the end of December, makes the comments in a working paper on regulating fair access between 2006 and 2021 for the Centre for Global Higher Education.

“The pandemic is yielding a continuation of the patterns we have seen during the last two decades: expanding opportunities to access higher education, but no progress yet on equality of opportunity,” he writes.

“This creates a problem for university admissions decisions in the future, particularly if the number of places available to an expanding young population becomes more limited, which is now a serious prospect due to the different position the current government is taking towards higher education access and participation compared with its predecessors.”

The government is expected to announce plans for a minimum entry tariff to study at university, using GCSE or A-level grades to restrict access to loan funding, shepherding students whose grades fall below that threshold into study at further education colleges.

Professor Millward, who is now professor of practice in education policy at the University of Birmingham, goes on to describe a “reduction in the number of people studying and ultimately working in the English higher education sector, and the promotion of other routes through life” as “a bad outcome for all of us working in higher education”, but adds that “more importantly I do not think it will succeed, for two reasons”.

He continues: “Firstly, increasing demand for higher education has driven governments in England since the Second World War to facilitate expansion; we saw this continue during the pandemic, despite the rhetoric against it, and I expect it to continue.

“Secondly, tertiary education in the 21st century cannot simplistically be divided between academic and technical routes; it is academic, technical, professional and creative, reflecting demand from students, but also the character of work and the demand from employers for broad and adaptable cognitive abilities, as well as specific skills.”

The government has asked the OfS, he writes, “to drive universities to work more closely with schools, and specifically to focus on attainment raising. This is part of a broader vision within which school grades influence whether young people pursue academic routes into higher education or technical routes into further education and work.”

But the OfS has had to be “cautious” about strengthening the relationship between universities and schools, says Professor Millward: as it cannot compel universities to invest in schools; students might question why their fees were being spent on schools; any contribution by universities to raising attainment in schools would be “marginal”; and many higher education institutions recruit adults from “professions and communities” rather than young learners from schools.

He adds: “However excellent the efforts made by schools, colleges and universities during the coming years, it will be difficult to reduce the attainment gap between the most and least advantaged students and places. There may well, as the new guidance suggests, have been fundamental changes to standards in schools due to policies introduced since 2010, but this has been accompanied by a failure to reduce the attainment gap, even without accounting for private schooling and the impact of the pandemic.

“The use of school grades to separate students between academic and technical routes would, therefore, increase rather than reduce the divisions between the most and least advantaged people and places, which have been central to concerns about the consequences of increasing higher education participation.”

While former education secretary Gavin Williamson was clear that he wanted to bring forward plans for a minimum entry requirement, nothing has been heard on the subject from Nadhim Zahawi since he took office - potentially leaving scope for a rethink.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “This is a government that has boosted aspirations and grown opportunities for disadvantaged people across the country, and last year a record proportion of disadvantaged students has started university as a result. We are committed to continuing to level up opportunity so every young person can fulfil their potential.

“But we also want to make getting on as important as getting in – which is why in November last year we asked universities to reboot their widening access plans with ambitious targets to support students both before and during their time at university, by reducing dropout rates and improving progression into high-paid, high-skilled jobs for disadvantaged students.”

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Reader's comments (2)

Govt subscribes to neoliberal 'meritocratic extremism' by this route, entrenching socio-economic differences.
The only acceptable way to have minimum entrance requirements is to establish high quality access courses and foundation year programmes to enable those who for whatever reasons are disadvantaged to gain those minimum entrance requirements. Unless the funding is supplied for such offerings, minimum entrance requirements must be rejected out of hand.