Minister: minimum entry rules ‘not definite direction of travel’

Westminster government ‘starting a conversation’ on minimum entry bar, and proposals would affect only ‘tiny proportion’ of students, says Michelle Donelan

February 23, 2022

The Westminster government’s proposal for a minimum entry requirement to English higher education is the “start of a conversation” and it “isn’t necessarily the case” that it will be introduced, with fewer than 5,000 current students below the proposed GCSE threshold, according to minister Michelle Donelan.

Ms Donelan, the higher education minister, gave journalists more details of the government’s package of higher education proposals arising from its much-delayed response to the Augar review of post-18 education on 23 February.

The government will publish its Augar response, alongside two consultations – one on minimum entry requirements to qualify for student loan funding at higher education institutions and on student number controls; one on lifelong loans – on 24 February.

A front-page story in The Daily Telegraph said “pupils who fail their maths and English GCSEs will be banned from taking out student loans under new government plans”, describing the proposals as aiming “to reduce university numbers”.

But Ms Donelan struck a rather different tone at the briefing, saying: “It isn’t necessarily the case we will even be doing a minimum entry requirement, or going down that English and maths route. That is just one of the options.”

She also said: “We’re just starting a conversation on this. The consultation makes it really, super clear that it’s not a defined, definite direction of travel. It’s something that I think it’s right we explore as an option.

“We used to have a minimum entry requirement in this country of two Es. The consultation asks again: should we be reintroducing that?

“At the moment, we all know there are young people that get three Es every year that feel compelled and pushed to go to university before they are ready. I think that is doing them a disservice. And it means they are much more likely to then drop out.”

The proposals involved “very low-level minimum entry requirements”, she stressed,

The government, she continued, was “having a conversation about whether, first of all, should we, in theory, be exploring minimum entry requirements. And secondly, if so, what should that minimum entry requirement be. Should it be two Es at A level? Or should it be an English and maths pass at GCSE?”

On exemptions, she added: “With both [proposals], we rule out that we would ever consider doing them for mature students. We also say for the GCSE one that if a student didn’t pass English or maths GCSE, but then went on to get the equivalent of three Cs in their A levels or other vocational qualifications in terms of Ucas points, then they would be exempt from that minimum entry requirement.”

Ms Donelan said there were 4,800 students “who went to university [last year] who didn’t get those [grade 4 English and maths] passes at GCSE. And that’s when we’ve allowed for the exemption of A-level grades.”

This was a “tiny, tiny proportion” of the total number of students at English universities, she added.

The government would “also ask the question [in the consultation] if there are other exemptions that are required”, Ms Donelan said.

She added: “This isn’t about ruling out university as an option for [students with grades below any threshold]. It’s about making sure they have the support to either go and do a foundation year or resit their exams, to make sure that when they go to university they are in the best place to go on and complete that course and get that qualification.”

Addressing the question of whether the move was “just about getting less people to go to university”, Ms Donelan said it was “absolutely not”.

“We totally need to get away from this obsession with targets and quotas, which are completely arbitrary,” she continued. “This isn’t about pushing people to or away from university.”

Asked if the lifelong loan entitlement might actually mean more people going to university, Ms Donelan reiterated her desire to “get away from these numbers, whether it’s more or less. It’s about…delivering for individuals.”

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