Gov accused of 'attacking' poorer pupils over plans to withhold student loans based on GCSEs

24 February 2022, 00:05 | Updated: 24 February 2022, 00:42

The Government is considering banning access to student loans for pupils who don't meet required GCSE grades
The Government is considering banning access to student loans for pupils who don't meet required GCSE grades. Picture: Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

Plans to consider minimum grade requirements for student loans are an "attack" on poorer pupils and "fly in the face of the levelling up agenda", a university staff union has said.

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On Thursday, the Government unveiled its response to the Augar review into higher education (HE) funding.

Student loan repayments will start at a lower salary threshold of £25,000 from 2023/24, and students will repay loans over 40 years instead of 30.

And a new consultation will consider whether students without at least a GCSE pass in English and maths or two E grade A-levels should access student loans.

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University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said the plans for minimum grade requirements for student loans were "an attack on working class learners and fly in the face of the levelling up agenda".

She said the Government appeared "determined to shut the door on those it thinks aren't worthy of going to university".

"We saw during the pandemic that those from better-off backgrounds benefited most from grade inflation, with private schools gaming the system," Ms Grady said.

"Eligibility requirements threaten to make this situation worse, creating huge pressure on schools and colleges to inflate grades so that their students get into university, and further entrenching the divide between private and state schools."

She added that the changes to loan repayments forced young people to make "a devil's bargain, saddling themselves with a lifetime of debt in an effort to improve their life chances".

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the entry requirement changes sounded like "removing a ladder up rather than levelling up".

The Government said 4,800 students without GCSE maths and English passes entered higher education last year, excluding mature students who would be exempt from the change.

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"We welcome steps to reduce student loan interest rates and we understand the need to address the scale of the student loan book," Mr Barton said.

"However, this comes with a sting in the tail as students will now face 40 years rather than 30 years of repayments," he added.

Mr Barton said heads were concerned about the introduction of minimum entry requirements, with the proposal that students should have at least a grade 4 pass in GCSE maths or English effectively excluding the third of pupils who do not achieve these grades in a normal year.

"We should be doing more rather than less to support the progress of this 'forgotten third', and a move to restrict their choices sounds like removing a ladder up rather than levelling up," he said.

David Robinson, director of post-16 and skills at the Education Policy Institute, said that while the introduction of a Lifelong Loan Entitlement was welcome, the Government "should proceed with caution" when it came to minimum entry requirements and assess the impact on disadvantaged and under-represented groups.

"Existing analysis from Ucas suggests that students from low-income families, black students and those from parts of the North and the West Midlands could be most affected by these changes," he said.

"Many of these students will be applying for university in the next few years and will also have experienced considerable learning loss as a result of the pandemic."

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Mr Robinson said students without grade 4 in English and maths GCSE might currently have "limited options" when it came to accessing Level 3 courses, including T Levels, and that this made it harder for them to secure two Es at A-level or their equivalent.

"It is therefore important that the Government considers whether contextual factors, such as student background or learning loss, should be taken into account when applying for student loans," he said.

"Importantly, the Government must also provide resources to support schools to ensure that more disadvantaged pupils achieve these minimum entry requirements," he added.

Mr Robinson said the proposals overall seemed "regressive".

Higher and further education minister Michelle Donelan said the consultation on minimum entry requirements for loans made it clear this was not a "definite" direction of travel.

"But it is something that I think it's right that we explore as an option. We used to have an entry requirement in this country of two Es," she said.

"We all know that there are young people that get three Es every year that feel compelled and pushed to go to university before they're ready, and I think that that is doing them a disservice," Ms Donelan added.

She said the requirements would have exemptions for mature students, and that pupils who did not pass English or maths GCSE but went on to get the equivalent of three Cs at A-level would also be exempt.

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In 2021, 4,800 students entered higher education without passes in English and maths GCSE.

Ms Donelan said the changes were "absolutely not" about getting fewer people to go to university.

"This isn't about pushing people to or away from university - this is about having a system that's designed to be geared up to the individual," she said, adding that the "obsession" with targets or quotas for students needed to end.

"This is a Government that is committed to real social mobility, and real social mobility is not getting somebody to the front door, so it's not about getting a kid to university and then job done," she said.

"That's not job done if they then drop out after a year or they then complete that degree and it never leads them to a graduate job - that's not a quality education and it's not a quality outcome."