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Why a grade threshold for higher education study is neither necessary or defensible

  • 28 March 2019
  • By Greg Walker

A guest blog kindly contributed by Dr Greg Walker, Chief Executive of MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities.

Iain Mansfield, sets out in his HEPI blog (26 March) a defence of limiting access to a university education according to a minimum threshold of grade attainment (DDD at A Level, or equivalent). It is thought that such a proposal is under consideration by the Augar Panel. Most commentators assume that such a policy, if pursued, would be implemented by restricting access to student loans as universities, under statute, are responsible for their own admissions.

Iain’s blog defends the grade threshold idea claiming it would control costs for the public purse, would be simple to administer, might fit the ‘Robbins principle’ on access to HE, and would leave social mobility largely unaffected. I will take each of Iain’s points (in reverse order), arguing that, on all four of his criteria, the threshold policy is neither necessary nor remotely defensible.

1 Impact on social mobility

This is the most important point to address. There are two key problems with the threshold policy, first that prior attainment is closely linked to social disadvantage and what type of school you attend. It’s correlated also to where you live, with big gaps in qualification attainment between different parts of the country, even within localities (see slides 3-5).
The second issue is that the grade threshold policy as ‘leaked’ would unfairly block prospective students who were less well-off from attending university because it proposes barring access to a student loan, not admission to a university programme. Therefore, students with lower grades but still met the university’s entry criteria, and who happen to have middle or high earning parents, could rely on them to pay up front to cover their university fees. They may also be able to take out a private loan, perhaps at an interest rate lower than the current 6.2% student loan rate.

Better off parents also have extra options should they think their offspring might not reach the proposed grade threshold, getting them ‘over the line’ through private tuition, funding exam resits, or paying for exam grade appeals. This is a point too rarely highlighted in this debate: the threshold would primarily hit the aspirational poorer applicant, not a middle- or upper-class applicant with lower attainment.

With this proposal we are in danger of access to university being driven by the financial position of parents to pay, not the potential of a prospective student to benefit from a programme of study. This point alone should sink the proposal.

Iain, and others, have proposed that the threshold applies only to 18-20-year olds. Yet it is far from clear why the policy is right for a 20-year-old but inappropriate for someone just a few months older. If implemented, the policy would allow better-off students with lower attainment to simply take a double ‘gap year’ with internships and the like, applying for a university place via UCAS for a degree funded by student loans as they turn 20, rather than 18 or 19 at present. Disadvantaged applicants are not as likely to be in such a fortunate position.

2. The Robbins principle

The principle governing public support for people to access higher education (HE) – the ‘Robbins principle’ is broader than that cited by Iain Mansfield. He quotes the Robbins Report’s reference to those qualified “by ability and attainment” being supported to study, but this overlooks repeated reference elsewhere in that report to the “ability to benefit” from a course of study as a central point (s.146). Robbins also hoped and expected that successive generations over the decades should have ever-greater access to HE from an untapped pool of talent.

The University Grants Committee took up these points, soon clarifying the Robbins principle, stating that “courses of higher education should be available to all those who can benefit from them and who wish to do so”. This form of the Robbins principle was endorsed in the Dearing Report (1997) and followed by successive governments of different political colours. Indeed Iain, in section 4 of his blog, silently notes the canonical form of the principle when writing about the “ability to succeed in, or benefit from, higher education”. We should prefer this form of the Robbins principle to a narrow focus on prior qualification attainment.

3. Administrative issues

Rationing student number by grades would certainly not be administratively easy to implement – far from it. Those who implemented the old AAB policy under HEFCE and UCAS six years ago will know that this required a major bureaucratic effort identifying the full range of hundreds of pre-university qualifications and calculating equivalences, with a large team of officials charged with implementing it (see a former CEO of UCAS’s points here). A grade threshold would be much more complex than the AAB policy, as there would have to be a plethora of exceptions (in relation to, say, care leavers, armed forces children or applicants with certain disabilities) that would have to be policed to ensure horizontal equity. Another set of exceptions that might have to be policed would be in relation to those admitted to a degree by the route of a portfolio of work, performances or artefacts, which are frequently used in place of formal qualifications for the creative arts and many work-related courses where such experience is directly relevant to the programme.

4 Controlling government spending

The need to cap or reduce public investment in HE following the reclassification of student loans is the premise of Iain Mansfield’s plea for a grade threshold policy. But recent news on the high level of tax receipts shows that the government’s fiscal position is stronger than it was even a year ago, with the deficit at its lowest level for nearly two decades.

As the Financial Times noted this month the Chancellor could concentrate his fiscal consolidation plans on the second of his fiscal principles: the supplementary rule reducing debt as a proportion of national wealth, something achievable even when the loan reclassification is accounted for. The Government should therefore treat the reclassification of loans as a fiscal ‘Black Swan’ event, something that could not have been predicted when the Treasury fiscal rules were set in 2015. In this light, it wouldn’t make sense to tighten the screw on fiscal policy artificially in response, by introducing a new student numbers cap based on grades to cut overall HE costs.

Tightening policy in this way would hit the government wider agenda in boosting high level skills to deliver the Industrial Strategy and would contradict the Prime Minister’s recent public statements that ‘austerity is coming to an end’. And in the context of the demographic expansion of young adults expected in the 2020’s, such a new cap would also mean the rate of HE participation dipping well below even the current OECD average in the decade ahead.


While the UK is embroiled in bitter debates about its future in the world other nations are powering ahead with ambitious agendas to develop their knowledge economies. The shock of the 2008 economic crash and our traumas over Brexit has led some in England to re-examine the very basis of higher education policy. My plea in this blog is simply that we should not set aside the sound basis of admitting prospective students on their capacity to benefit from the degree and not based on a grade threshold policy plucked from the air. If we are serious about fair life chances for all, we should stick to our long-held principles.

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