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28 February 2022

Exclusive: Majority of poorer pupils could be barred from university under loan rules

Entry requirements for student finance could block up to 55 per cent of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, the New Statesman finds.

By Ben van der Merwe

New minimum entry requirements could block access to student loans for up to 55 per cent of disadvantaged children, an exclusive New Statesman analysis reveals.

Under government proposals reported on 23 February, pupils without the equivalent of grade 4 or above in both English and maths at GCSE, or without two A-levels at grade E or above, would be denied student loans.

The move could put financial support out of reach for more than half of England’s disadvantaged children, including pupils who have been eligible for free school meals in the last six years, who are looked after or who have been adopted from care.

In 2019, 55 per cent of disadvantaged students sitting GCSEs in England failed to obtain marks of grade 4 or above in both maths and English. Two years later, in 2021, 70 per cent of the same cohort either did not sit A-levels or sat them but failed to obtain a pass in more than one subject.

The proportion who would fail to meet the government’s new test could be anywhere between 25 and 55 per cent, depending on the level of overlap between those performing poorly at GCSE and those performing poorly at A-level.

[See also: Reforms should hit exploitative universities instead of poor students]

The new rules, expected to be introduced in 2023, would probably also exclude the overwhelming majority of Gypsy and Roma Traveller children (between 77 and 86 per cent of whom would not pass the new threshold), and could make university inaccessible for the majority of children from a black Caribbean background (between 20 and 52 per cent of whom would be affected).

The Department for Education declined to comment on the findings.

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“You take it for granted that people can just do maths and English, but what if the formal school system hasn’t worked for you? What if you left school at 12 or 13 to be home educated because you suffered prejudice from classmates or teachers,” asked Sherrie Smith, the co-founder of Drive2Survive, which provides support and mentoring for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people entering higher education.

A Romany Gypsy herself, Smith entered academia with only a floristry qualification. She now researches barriers to Travellers accessing higher education in the UK.

As part of a package of measures intended to cut public spending on higher education, the government is seeking to both cut student numbers and make graduates repay more of their debt.

The proposed minimum entry requirements would affect eligibility for financial support rather than for higher education itself. As a result, the impact on students failing to meet the new criteria will be less significant for those from wealthy backgrounds, who are already much less likely to take out a student loan.

“Most likely, it will be disadvantaged groups that will suffer more,” said David Robinson, director of post-16 education and skills at the Education Policy Institute.

“What we have to remember is that the government’s drive behind this is not equality but cost savings. If a student from a more advantaged background pays their fees upfront then there’s no chance of the government having to write off their loans at some future point."

The government has also proposed changes to student loan repayments that would advantage wealthier graduates at the expense of low earners. According to modelling by London Economics, the richest graduates would save £15,200 on their student loan repayments, while payments by the poorest would rise by hundreds or thousands of pounds.

The Department for Education’s own equality impact assessment of the proposals, published on 24 February, notes that “lifetime repayments are higher for the bottom 80 per cent of lifetime earners under the new system, but lower for the top 20 per cent”. 

The assessment further notes “students with certain protected characteristics, such as students from black and ethnic minority groups and those with special educational needs, are likely to be disproportionately impacted” by the new minimum entry requirement for student loans.

In a speech last week, the universities minister Michelle Donelan defended the new minimum entry requirement plans, saying: “Real social mobility is not achieved by pushing young people into university if they are not ready… We need to leave the one-size-fits-all system in the past – and focus on what is best for each individual.”

However, the Department for Education declined to present evidence to the New Statesman that people falling short of the new requirements would be better off without going to university.

The department’s equality impact assessment warns that “it is not possible to conclude whether those students affected by a [minimum entry requirement] will go on to achieve better outcomes than they would have done” had they been allowed to take out a loan.

A 2018 Institute for Fiscal Studies report commissioned by the department found that people with low GCSE and A-level attainment actually received a larger earnings boost from attending higher education than those with high prior attainment.

The proposed changes were originally put forward by the 2019 Augar review, though it cautioned against the risk that a minimum entry requirement would unfairly penalise disadvantaged students. The government-commissioned review of post-18 education suggested that this could be avoided by contextualising the grades of applicants from deprived backgrounds on the basis that “their qualifications potentially understate their potential”.

An analysis commissioned for the review by Ucas found that the 20 per cent most deprived applicants “would need an average adjustment of three grades (eg from EEE to DDD) to bring their attainment in line with more advantaged peers”. These suggestions have not been included in the government’s proposals.

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