Students from disadvantaged backgrounds in England could be blocked from going to university unless they get strong GCSE or A-level grades, under proposals to be announced by the government this week.
On Thursday the government is to publish its long-awaited response to the Augar review of higher education funding, and the Guardian has learned that a key part of the response will be the launch of a consultation on minimum entry requirements for students to be eligible for government-backed loans for tuition and maintenance.
University leaders warn that setting minimum entry requirements too high, such as requiring a grade 5 in GCSE maths and English, would effectively end the hopes of many school leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds and others who could not be able to afford the £9,250 annual undergraduate tuition fee or living expenses without student loans.
A key determinant will be whether a GCSE grade 4 or 5 is determined to be the minimum entry standard. About 71% of pupils in England achieve a grade 4 in GCSE English and maths, falling to 52% amoung disadvantaged households.
Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “After nearly three years of inaction, this meagre response shows the government does not share the ambitions of young people and their families for their futures and the future of our country.
“Instead of looking to widen access to university education, or supporting the success of our universities, the government is slamming the door on opportunity.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “Higher education is an investment and we need to ensure that graduates are being rewarded for the money, time and effort they put into their studies with an educational experience and jobs that match their skills and help contribute to the economy.”
The announcement comes as record numbers of school leavers apply for undergraduate places. The Department for Education has been battling with the Treasury over the cost of financing for nearly three years since the Augar review was published under the then prime minister Theresa May.
A further consultation will be announced on the future of foundation year courses taught at universities. Those are offered to students who don’t meet an institution’s academic requirements and remain a key point of access for many, especially mature students. However, the Augar review recommended that foundation years be restricted to further education colleges.
Other headline measures to be announced include the freezing of the tuition fee at £9,250 for another two years, until the end of the current parliament. That will result in an effective cut in university incomes from teaching undergraduates, with the value of the tuition fee already considerably eroded by inflation. In real terms its value by 2024 is likely to be much less than £7,000, depending on the rate of inflation.
The government will also announce a similar freeze on the threshold earnings for student loan repayments, hitting recent graduates who will find themselves having to make higher repayments as their wages rise more quickly above the threshold.
Earlier this year the DfE announced that the repayment threshold – the amount at which graduates in England pay off their student loans – would be frozen at £27,295, which the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates would cost graduates earning £30,000 an extra £113 a year each. The IFS also calculated that the move would save the Treasury around £600m a year in higher repayments than it would have received if the threshold had been indexed to inflation as originally intended.
However, the proposals to be unveiled on Thursday are expected to include some good news on capping the interest charged on student loans, although that will have no immediate effect on the level of repayments.
The consultation is the government’s long delayed response to the Augar review of post-18 education and funding in England, which was announced by former prime minister Teresa May in February 2018 after Labour’s buoyant performance in the 2017 general election, thanks in part to its pledge to scrap student tuition fees.
The review was launched at a time of mounting concern about the cost – and value – of higher education, after annual tuition fees rose to £9,250 and maintenance grants were scrapped, sending individual student debt spiralling to almost £50,000.
When it finally reported on 30 May 2019, it included 53 recommendations on the future for the sector, including a reduction of tuition fees to £7,500, an extension of student loan repayments from 30 to 40 years and the reintroduction of maintenance grants for the most disadvantaged students.
However, as time has gone on and the political climate has changed, many of Augar’s recommendations have looked increasingly unlikely. With outstanding student loans reaching £140bn last year the Treasury’s priority has been to reduce the cost of student loans to itself rather than ease the burden on students.
Higher education staff and management are currently locked in a bitter industrial dispute over pensions, pay and working conditions.
On Tuesday evening a key negotiating committee of the University Superannuation Scheme, which administers the pension fund for many university staff, rejected funding proposals by the University and College Union in favour of those put forward by the employers.
Jo Grady, the UCU chair, warned that the decision would lead to further industrial action. “University vice-chancellors have today chosen to steal tens of thousands from the retirement income of staff. This is a deplorable attack which our members won’t take lying down,” Grady said.