Peter Scott is Commissioner for Fair Access in Scotland and Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Studies at the UCL Institute of Education, as well as a former HEPI Trustee.
Minimum entry requirements in Scotland and minimum eligibility requirements, now being consulted on in England, share an acronym – MERs – but not much else. Instead, they tell us a lot about the different approaches taken by the two nations to fair access and widening participation.
In Scotland, minimum entry requirements are published by every university and for every course. They give, alongside the standard Higher grades applicants need, lower grades for applicants from socially deprived communities, schools with a record of low progression to university and a range of other forms of disadvantage. In most cases, if these applicants get these lower grades, they are guaranteed places.
Two key points: firstly, MERs in Scotland are designed to widen access; and secondly, they are set by universities.
Now contrast that with the minimum eligibility requirements, on which the UK Government is now consulting in England. Unlike in Scotland, the aim is to deflect potential applicants with poorer grades into further education or some form of training. How many would be ‘cooled out’ by MERs is open to debate. Up to a third, some scary newspaper headlines suggested. Less than 10 per cent, Mary Curnock-Cook argued in a HEPI blog last Thursday. But what is not open to debate is that, if (when) MERs are applied in England, some applicants will be excluded – hardly, therefore, a measure designed to widen access.
Also, whatever the semantics, these English MERs will be imposed by the State. Although, technically, universities are free to admit whomever they like, in practice, given the high fees charged by English universities, no one denied access to a student loan can go to university. This is especially true of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, the very group targeted by efforts to widen participation.
In Scotland, universities set MERs to widen access. In England, the State imposes MERs to curb it. So, it is very difficult to claim the UK Government’s package of measures in response to the recommendations made by Augar are somehow progressive, let alone favourable to fair access.
In her blog, Mary Curnock Cook pointed out that only eight per cent of 2020 applicants would have been excluded because they had not met the threshold of a minimum of grade 4 in English and maths at GCSE. But the reason this is a comparatively small number (20,000) is that the majority of those who fall below that threshold have already been deflected into FE and training and never get on any kind of pathway leading to higher education. She argued we need to look carefully at the socio-economic (and gender and ethnic) characteristics of the excluded 20,000. Correct – although I will not be holding my breath for the results of any research. We know that a vanishingly small number will come from middle-class homes.
The question we should ask is why secondary school examinations – at any age, but especially at 16 – are used to pre-determine access to higher education by dividing young people into sheep and goats, winners and losers. Yet, time and time again, colleges and universities have demonstrated through their access and other bridging courses that those who have very poor results can nevertheless flourish in higher education – although those who do benefit are inevitably small in number, urged on by dedicated school teachers or committed university outreach officers.
The other issue, of course, is the blind faith in the accuracy of GCSE and A-level grades implied by using MERs to exclude potential applicants. These grades are often equated with ‘attainment’ levels which are objective and unchallengeable. But, even in normal times, research has shown that grades can often be a grade out, which matters a lot when young people’s futures are in the balance. On top of that, the cancellation of written examinations and the substitution of teacher assessed grades for the past two years, as a result of COVID-19, has demonstrated just how variable grades can be. Disgraceful grade inflation has taken place in some independent schools with large jumps in the number awarded A*s that seem unjustifiable, but have gone unchallenged.
But, leaving that aside, we have no means of knowing which are more accurate – written examinations or teacher-assessed grades. We will have to wait for three or four years to see how students admitted with COVID-era ‘inflated’ grades actually fare in higher education. Not too badly, anecdotal evidence suggests. What we do know is that before any candidate has put pen to paper, Ofqual has already decided that this year the high grades given over the past two years must be reined back. How can we treat grades that have been shown to be so variable, and are in part mandated by State decision, as a gold standard which determine who is eligible for higher education?
My focus so far has been on MERs. But most of the other elements in the UK Government’s response to Augar are also adverse to access. First, kicking post-qualifications entry into the long grass disadvantages applicants who are themselves disadvantaged. Again, research has shown that some grades are over-predicted and others under-predicted, influencing university offers. No prizes for guessing which groups of applicants from which types of school fall into the two camps. Next, lowering the repayment threshold will mean more low-earning graduates have to start repaying their loans sooner and repay more. Third,ly the extension of the repayment period to 40 years, in effect turning student loan repayments into a graduate tax to be paid until retirement, is likely to be a greater discouragement to students from poorer homes considering higher education in the first place – as well as, obviously, increasing the total those who do take the plunge will repay. Finally, and in sharp contrast, reducing the interest rate charged on student loans will disproportionately favour the better off. What’s not to dislike from an access perspective?
The primary purpose of this package, of course, is to save money so that the Tories can get the public finances back on the austerity track after the COVID blip/ binge, although inevitably this is glossed as rebalancing the contributions of students/ graduates and taxpayers. Maybe this became inevitable when the accounting rules were changed so that the real cost of student loans could no longer be hidden from the balance sheet. A back-door reimposition of a student number cap, which is what MERs English-style represent, was always likely. But it has been reinforced by another Tory obsession, to roll back Tony Blair’s ‘education, education, education’ expansion of university places, and to reserve a ‘proper’ university education for people who can ‘benefit’ – in terms of well-paid jobs.
This – what I should probably call in HEPI-speak – ‘direction of travel’ is also based on the assumption that we should continue to distinguish between FE and HE, vocational and academic tracks, in terms of their social bases and costs. Of course, that is the current reality. Universities, especially Russell Group ones, draw a disproportionate number of their students from socially-privileged backgrounds, while FE is badly under-funded. This is why it makes (economic) sense for the Government to try to divert more students there. But is that sustainable in a country that aspires to being both democratic and dynamic? Most other countries have moved on and now think in terms of tertiary systems embracing HE, FE, on-the-job training, adult and community learning, the virtual stuff – in other words, the lot – and bound together by flexible pathways and equitable funding – and, above all, by fair access. In the UK, Wales is setting the pace, while Scotland has had its ‘Learner Journey 15-24’ initiative. In England, sadly, there is no echo of such positive thinking. We are left with a Brexit of the policy imagination.
On Thursday 10 March 2022 HEPI and Advance HE are jointly hosting a webinar on equality and diversity. To register your place, please click here.