Ministers ‘moving forward’ with English university entry bar

Education secretary also tells v-cs that some universities are ‘pursuing a divisive agenda involving cancelling national heroes’

September 9, 2021
Snail illustrating slow progress with UK university education consultation and reform

The Westminster government is “moving forward” with a consultation on minimum entry requirements to access student loans, according to the education secretary, who also accused some universities of “pursuing a divisive agenda involving cancelling national heroes”.

Gavin Williamson made a speech, delivered remotely, to vice-chancellors at the Universities UK annual conference on 9 September, amid speculation that he is set to be removed from his post in a reshuffle and following a gaffe the previous day.

His speech came ahead of the announcement of the government’s comprehensive spending review on 27 October and amid continuing delays on consultation over potential major reforms that could be unveiled in the spending review. The Department for Education had originally scheduled the consultation for spring.

Following the speech, St George’s, University of London principal Jenny Higham asked Mr Williamson whether there would be any move to limit the number of students accessing degrees.

“I don’t think degrees are just the sole and only option,” replied the education secretary.

“You’ll be aware that we are moving forwards in terms of doing a full consultation on minimum entry requirements,” he added. “I think this is the right thing to do, because it’s hard to justify when you’re in a situation where an 18-year-old doesn’t have a level 2 [GCSE level] qualification in terms of good pass in English and maths that they can still progress onto a level 6 [degree level] qualification.”

That the government was looking at using GCSE grades to restrict student entry to university was first reported by Times Higher Education in March.

The government’s interim response to the Augar review, published in January, said there would be “consideration of elements mentioned” by the review, “including student finance terms and conditions” and “minimum entry requirements to higher education institutions”, with a final response at the comprehensive spending review. But there has been continued delay over the publication of such a consultation, with suggestions that the DfE and Treasury are in disagreement over how to proceed – with the latter favouring clearer cost-saving measures.

With so little time left before the spending review, universities will fear that any consultation cannot now be meaningful.

Mr Williamson was also asked whether the spending review would bring cuts to university funding. While he said he could not discuss the spending review, he added that England has one of world’s best university systems, and he aimed to “protect that position and protect universities’ ability to invest in students”. The “quid pro quo” will be showing that universities can help address “gaps this country has in terms of its economy” and to “drive out poor quality”, he said.

In his speech, Mr Williamson said: “Too often, some universities seem more interested in pursuing a divisive agenda involving cancelling national heroes, debating about statues, anonymous reporting schemes for so-called micro-aggressions and politicising their curricula.

“Vice-chancellors who allow these initiatives to take place in their name must understand they do nothing but undermine public confidence, widen divisions and damage the sector. I call on you to help bring our nation together.”

On post-qualification admissions, the education secretary said he was “determined to accelerate our plans to bring forward this important reform”.

On online learning, he said: “While the switch to online teaching was a necessary and vital way of keeping young people learning in as safe a way as possible, we have now moved on and students quite rightly expect that they can study in person alongside other students.”

Mr Williamson added: “What I do want to make clear is that I do not expect to see online learning used as a cost-cutting measure. If there’s a genuine benefit to using technology, then it should be done…But that is not an excuse to not also deliver high-quality face-to-face teaching.”

On quality, he said it was “so disappointing to see some in the field of higher education cling to the myth that the quality of a course or degree makes no difference to a student’s outcomes”.

Referring to the Proceed metric being developed by the Office for Students, which includes a focus on proportions of students on each course going into “graduate-level jobs” without contextualising that data for prior attainment, subject studied or differing regional labour markets, Mr Williamson said that “at 25 higher education institutions, fewer than half the students who begin a degree will go on to graduate employment or further study.

“As I have said before, this is simply unacceptable. This represents a shocking waste of potential as well as a heartbreaking failure in someone’s hopes and dreams.

“The Office for Students have a key role to play in raising quality and standards…And I am clear that, in the future, students recruited on to such courses should not be able to be counted against a university’s targets for access.”

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Reader's comments (3)

I hope that the government pushes ahead with its minimum tariff plans since they have been needed for a long time.
The Tories culture war continues, and they start pulling up the ladder behind them. Which "national heroes" have been "cancelled" by which universities? What was their justification? I'm more inclined to believe that universities are trying to do the right and moral thing by acknowledging Britain's messy past, than the vague hand-waving and insinuation on display here from one of the shower of ideologically-pure Brexiters appointed by the borderline-aristocrat currently running the country.
If being a useless cabinet minister is graduate level employment then maybe it’s not such a good aspiration