There is a story on the front page of the Sunday Telegraph which says people with less than 3 Ds at A-Level won’t get funding to go to higher education.
There is a clear precedent for this. Sir David Eccles, the Minister of Education, told the House of Commons in July 1960, ‘we accept the Committee’s recommendation that awards should be given to all students admitted to degree courses at universities who have two G.C.E. passes at “A” level or the equivalent’.
This was a reference to the Anderson Committee, set up in 1958 to assess the system of awards for students doing their first degree. It explains why, in the old days, Oxbridge handed out so many 2E offers to people they wanted to recruit rather than a completely unconditional offer.
It also reminds us that it is a nonsense that universities were more autonomous in the past than now. The Higher Education and Research Act (2017) says, in contrast, that both Government and the Office for Students ‘must have regard to the need to protect the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers’ and interprets this to include: ‘the freedom of English higher education providers … to determine the criteria for the admission of students’.
This, presumably, explains why today’s newspaper story focuses on entitlement to student funding, which is more clearly in the Government’s control, than entitlement to a place. This is critically important because it floats the idea of a new sort of student: one who gets a place but who is not entitled to any student support.
We have been here (or somewhere close) before. My single trickiest night as a Special Adviser to the Minister for Universities and Science came on 9 May 2011, when I saw the first edition of the Guardian. They had an exclusive story based on some comments from my Minister headlined ‘Richest students to pay for extra places at Britain’s best universities’.
The piece is still available online with the sub-heading: ‘Proposals could allow UK students to enrol in university of their choice as long as they pay vastly higher fees up front’. The idea received some support from surprising quarters, such as GuildHE and the Office for Fair Access, for trying to create more room in the system (before the removal of student number controls was a serious idea).
But it was far too easy to caricature as letting rich-but-thick people buy places, especially when proposed by a right-of-centre rather than a left-of-centre party. A wise journalist immediately tweeted me to say ‘Guardian story is bad…’.
The next morning he tweeted again to say ‘Madness. Utter madness. Kill it now, or kill it later. Your choice. This is not going to happen.’
We killed it pretty swiftly, but not until the Speaker of the House of Commons had given the Opposition an Urgent Question on it.
The debate showed the whole idea to be politically toxic. Gavin Shuker, the convenor of the new Independent Group of MPs but then a Labour Party / Co-operative Party MP asked, ‘The Minister has categorically refused not to rule out private schools buying places for their students. Is this yet another idea dreamt up on the playing fields of Eton?’
But the raw politics of creating off-quota students are not the only idea why imposing a minimum 3D entry bar may not work. In office, we looked at other ways to relax student number controls on universities. Initially, this led to the so-called core-and-margin policy where each university was free to recruit as many people with the top grades as they wanted.
The grades in question were, initially AAB and then reduced to ABB. We considered going progressively lower and there was some interest inside Government on an overall minimum entry bar at the time. Instead, in late 2013, it was announced that all student number controls would be removed, which is the case today.
Why was the complete removal of student number controls implemented instead of other options? Here are five reasons, each one of which will make a minimum entry tariff for student funding hard to implement.
- Back in the days when you needed a minimum of 2Es at A-Level to enter higher education, A-Levels were pretty much the only game in town. Now, there is a wide variety of qualifications taken by UK pupils accepted by universities (IB, BTECs and Pre-U to mention just three others). So, to implement a 3D bar for access to funding, you need a huge and complicated exchange rate mechanism for all these other qualifications. You could, I suppose, use UCAS entry points but that doesn’t seem altogether fair as UCAS points are a rough guide rather than an accurate assessment of the preparation value of any qualification for any course.
- Perhaps Brexit will solve this, but your exchange rate mechanism would currently need to include qualifications in all other EU countries. Is there a person alive who knows what the true equivalent of 3Ds is in the Bulgarian high school exit exams?
- A-Level grades are a poor guide to success, especially in certain many degree courses, and rightly so. Those running creative courses, in particular, are often more interested in your past experience (perhaps reflected in a portfolio of work) than your exam certificates. So a minimum academic entry bar is a poor guide to someone’s ability to thrive at university – that is, after all, why we give universities autonomy on admissions.
- What is it all to mean for mature students and the Open University, which is open to all irrespective of their past academic achievements? Are we really to say to someone, for example, who emerges from a successful career in the armed services 20 years after joining up as a squaddie that they can only go and get a degree if they go back to school first? Ah, clever people say, we can have exemptions for such people. But once you have an exemption for some institutions, some people and some qualifications (such as those from abroad), it’s not really a policy any more.
- People who currently enter higher education with less than 3Ds are mainly first-in-family students attending less prestigious universities. In other words, they are the most vulnerable students at the most vulnerable institutions. If Ministers start banning such people from higher education (forcing them who knows where – FE Colleges, the dole queue?), then they will bear much more direct responsibility if and when social mobility declines and institutions fail. HEPI will, later this week, be publishing some new research on institutional failure – so watch this space.
Finally, HEPI has recently published a number of pieces on the fuzziness of A-Level grades, which prove they are a much less useful guide to someone’s performance than is generally recognised. We shall be publishing our next piece in this series tomorrow, looking at what can be done to tackle the issue.