University chiefs angry over ‘elitist’ student loan plans

Proposals to bar students without three Ds at A-level would hit courses such as nursing and ‘strike at heart of social mobility’

The heads of UK universities have reacted angrily to leaked proposals they say would bar thousands of disadvantaged young people from going to university by preventing them from getting student loans.

They also say that if the government goes ahead with rumoured plans to cut tuition fees, undergraduates would experience a poorer quality of education, less mental health support and a smaller choice of degree subjects.

The ideas have been leaked from the prime minister’s review of post-18 education, chaired by Philip Augar, a former equities broker, which is expected to report next month. One idea would stop young people qualifying for a loan if they didn’t get three Ds at A-level.

Vice-chancellors argue this would be reducing student numbers “by the back door”, and damaging poorer students in the process. “This would strike at the heart of social mobility,” says Dominic Shellard, head of De Montfort University, as it would prevent many people from the poorest backgrounds from improving their life chances by studying for a degree.

Last year nearly 8,000 UK 18-year-olds were accepted to study at university with 3Ds or lower, according to new data released by the admissions service Ucas last month. Universities say these applicants are much more likely to be from poorer families.

Shellard says these students are potentially among the best motivated: “Many students with lower A-level grades go on to do extremely well at university as they feel they’ve got something to prove.”

One of the subject areas that could suffer would be nursing. “There are already 500 nurse vacancies in our local hospitals and there will be far more after Brexit,” says Shellard. “At a time when we will have skills shortages because of Brexit it seems crazy to be talking about rigging the market even more and reducing our ability to train people.

“My fear is that we are going to end up with fewer people going to university, less social inclusion, less diversity, more elitism and a greatly denuded sector.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, a thinktank, also believes this would be a “catastrophic policy”. “It will hit entrants from the poorest backgrounds disproportionately. You might have missed 3Ds because you’ve been at a poor performing school,” he says.

With the Conservatives anxious to regain ground with young voters following Labour’s commitment to abolish tuition fees, universities have long believed that the review is a vehicle for reducing the £9,250 fees cap. But vice-chancellors fear the government is unlikely to plug the resulting gap in funding.

The Augar review team is rumoured to be favouring a cut in fees to £6,500 for arts, humanities and social science subjects – a loss of nearly £3,000 per student for universities. But fees for high-cost subjects that typically lead to higher earnings, including science, engineering and medicine, could increase to up to £13,500.

Academics with close links to Westminster have heard that for every £1,000 reduction in fees, the government calculates the sector will lose £1bn. They say reducing fees to £6,500 could mean an “eye-watering” loss of nearly £3bn.

The head of a Russell Group university, who asked not to be named, says: “The bottom line is that has to mean big job losses. You can’t cut £3bn without some really serious consequences.”

A second Russell Group vice-chancellor agrees: “If the government bring this in they will see a huge university job losses in the same year as a general election.”

He adds: “We’ll have to make some tough decisions. We won’t close arts and humanities subjects. But we will have to get more students on to those courses to make them viable.”

Universities including Cardiff, Reading, Gloucester and Birkbeck have already announced plans to make redundancies this year.

Nick Petford, head of Northampton University, told the Guardian that if fees dropped to £6,500, there was “no way” his university could move forward without “significant redundancies”.

Nigel Carrington, vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts, one of London’s biggest universities, is angry about the implication that arts disciplines are worth less. “It is very frustrating and depressing. If the leaks are to be believed, policy is being created based on ignorance or prejudice with no understanding of the importance of world-leading creative education as the foundation for our flourishing creative and cultural sectors.”

Carrington, whose university is made up of six internationally renowned arts and design colleges, including Central St Martins and the London College of Fashion, says it costs his institution more than £11,500 to deliver the average degree. He says teaching these subjects to the level industry requires needs technical facilities, properly resourced studios and increasingly expensive technology.

“A fees cut for arts subjects would be terrible for the UK. The creative industries will become even more important if we are to sustain growth after Brexit. And if universities don’t receive enough to run these courses properly, many will be forced to drop them.”

Hillman warns that some universities forced to find savings would slash investment in student mental health, as well as on helping students prepare for the job market. “In the short term, universities might be able to squeeze these things invisibly – until they have a spate of student suicides or their employment rate plummets.”


Anna Fazackerley

The GuardianTramp

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