Pros and cons of minimum grades for student loans

The new proposals could price disadvantaged pupils out of higher education, warn education experts

Pupils taking an exam
(Image credit: Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images)

Pupils in England who fail their maths and English GCSEs will be banned from taking out student loans under new government proposals.

The Department for Education (DfE) has launched a consultation on minimum grades for loan qualification as part of the biggest shake-up of higher-education funding in a decade, in response to the 2018 Augar review of post-18 education.

Under the plans, students who fail to gain a Grade 4 or above – equivalent to a C under the old grading system – or at least two Es at A-level will be “barred from accessing” student loans, reported The Telegraph. Mature students could be an exception to the rule, said the paper.

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1. Pro: push for high quality degrees

Government ministers argue that the new proposals for minimum grade requirements will ensure that pupils “aren’t being pushed into higher education before they are ready”, said The Telegraph. They are proposing to impose controls on student numbers “so that poor-quality, low-cost courses aren’t incentivised to grow uncontrollably”, said the paper.

The government will define “low-quality degrees” as “those with a high number of students dropping out and a low proportion getting a graduate job or entering further study once they have completed their degrees”, said the paper.

Data from the University and Colleges Admissions Service shows 320,000 sixth-formers have applied for university places so far, compared with 306,000 in 2021. But while student numbers are increasing, the DfE has said it is concerned that “not all students receive the same high quality of teaching” and that many students are becoming saddled with large amounts of debt and few job prospects. According to the department, “less than half of students” at 25 British universities who begin a degree “can expect to finish it and find professional employment or further study within 15 months of graduation”, said The Times.

2. Con: less access for disadvantaged

University leaders have warned that the proposed minimum entry requirements to access student loans was “too high” and would “effectively end the hopes” of school leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds who could not afford the £9,250 annual undergraduate tuition fee or living expenses without student loans, said The Guardian.

The paper said that a “key determinant” could be whether the threshold is set at Grade 4 or 5, with the percentage of pupils in England achieving a grade 4 in GCSE English and maths falling from 71% to 52% for those from disadvantaged households.

One education consultant warned that setting minimum entry requirements could “prevent levelling up” and harm social mobility. “Minimum entry requirements are a potential culture war minefield,” consultant Johnny Rich told The Independent. “If we want to level up, to generate social mobility and to meet skills needs, then blanket minimum entry requirements will do nothing more than close doors.”

3. Pro: opens door to alternatives

Ministers argue that the reforms “should encourage more young people to consider apprenticeships and other higher qualifications”, said the BBC. This indicates that the government is keen to “shift away” from the idea that university is “the best choice for all students”, said The Guardian’s education correspondent Sally Weale.

If introduced, the new policy “rows back on policies pioneered by New Labour and the coalition government”, said The Telegraph, which sought to encourage 50% of young people to attend university and which, in 1997, saw student numbers rise by 400,000 a year to over 1.5m.

4. Con: risk of discrimination

Some experts warn that the proposals could become a legal minefield for the government if people are denied the opportunity to access student loans due to learning difficulties or other disabilities.

Sarah Woosey, an education lawyer at Simpson Millar, said the proposed changes were “potentially discriminatory”, and could violate equality laws. “Although it is probably sensible to ensure that students are only funded to study courses which they are able to succeed at, this decision should be determined by the entrance criteria for the individual universities, which also must comply with the Equality Act,” she told FE Week.

She added: “To say that a university would be happy to offer a place to an applicant on the basis of their admissions criteria but then for that student to be unable to access funding to do this because of their disability has got to be wrong.”

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