The danger of unintended consequences: minimum entry requirements

I have been working in education for almost 40 years. In that time, I have seen a plethora of ill-considered policies come and go. But rarely have I been so worried by the unintended consequences of a potential change. While not yet formally announced, the (as yet) hinted-at imposition of minimum entry requirements on admissions will narrow access to higher education for a significant number of students: many from disadvantaged backgrounds, precisely those engaged by widening participation initiatives over the last quarter of a century.

The imposition of minimum entry requirements is a stealthy, frankly dishonest diktat to cap student numbers, not by amending legislation, but rather by removing funding. It blatantly disregards the fact that all universities can make their own decisions about admissions – and the fact that if institutions currently allow students with limited qualifications to enter their programmes, they can pro-actively provide additional support.

The government case for minimum entry requirements is clothed in a hypocritical garb of ‘quality’ but it will result in fewer students (and thus reduce the cost of the HE tuition fee loan book to the taxpayer). The idea has been floated for well over two years, as a much belated response to the Independent panel report to the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding (known as the Augar Report) published May 2019. This queried whether students should have to meet minimum entry requirements to access funding from student finance for HE courses. Recommendation 3.7 states:

‘Unless the sector has moved to address the problem of recruitment to courses which have poor retention, poor graduate employability, and poor long-term earnings benefits by 2022-23, the government should intervene by…a contextualised minimum entry threshold [or] a selective numbers cap’.

The latter is unlikely as it will be perceived politically as a cap on aspiration. So, the likelihood is that potential students with qualifications not meeting a government-decided minimum entry requirement will be denied access to funding, and thus, ipso facto, a place on a course leading to a higher education qualification. The machinery is being put in place – clause 17 of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill gives the Office for Students the power to judge higher education quality via student outcomes. Condition B3 includes setting minimum thresholds for continuation, qualification completion and graduate outcomes and the potential for the introduction of blanket minimum entry requirements in English HE.

As Jonathan Woodhead reminds us in Research Professional News (2022), since Robbins (1963), access to undergraduate study (and student finance) has required two A levels and 5 GCSE passes, a requirement widened since to BTECs, foundation years and other alternatives. With significant changes mooted, where will the minimum entry line fall? Individual institutions, and networks like FACE, are having to second guess possible futures.

One, somewhat arbitrary possibility, could be to debar any student with fewer than three A level passes at grade D from accessing financial support. It is difficult to envisage how this would contribute to a ‘levelling-up’ agenda, or to enhancing social mobility. (As a personal aside, it would also have prevented this Professor from attending his Polytechnic in the 1970s as a ‘first in family’).

If a minimum of three grade Ds was imposed, it would decimate opportunities for mature students and any learner seeking a second chance. Many adult learners, attracted into higher education by the Open University’s open entry policy or Birkbeck’s part-time evening classes would inevitably be adversely affected. This approach to minimum entry would devastate universities doing the ‘heavy-lifting’ in widening the participation of learners over the traditional age of entry at 18/19.

An age threshold has been suggested – perhaps minimum entry could apply only to students under 21, or 25, or 30. But this is to complicate admissions processes – will a student who has spent considerable time (and possibly expense) gaining A levels later in life be forced to put their aspirations on hold before reaching the age at which financial support kicks in?

A second possibility identifies a bar at passes in GCSE Maths and English. Gavin Williamson (remember him) suggested students should need GCSE passes in English and Maths before qualifying for student loans. As Johnny Rich argued in a WONKHE article (2021), there cannot be many students blocked by such a low bar – he identified:

  • Students whose education was interrupted by illness and who were thus prevented from taking their exams at the usual time
  • Students whose personal circumstances created critical breaks in their education – such as family break-up, homelessness, bereavement
  • Older learners who left school early or under-achieved
  • Neurodiverse learners (eg with dyslexia, dyspraxia) who may have struggled with specific GCSEs but possess talent
  • Students failed by a disrupted or poor-quality school system

Focussing on the myth of GCSE Maths and English as representing essential preparation for all aspiring to higher education ignores the success of UK creative industries fuelled by those (oft maligned) Arts degrees, often based on interview/portfolio/audition, with little relevance given to GCSEs. Mis-conceptualising the quality of HE as an issue solved by GCSE grades will only lead to a tortuous cycle of spirit-sapping GCSE resits, examinations which already have a high failure rate (77%).

Minimum entry requirements represent a flawed idea to recoup taxpayer money with the unintended consequence that participation will be narrowed. Aspirations to levelling up, promoting social mobility and closing skills gaps will be dashed. We need to speak up for those in greatest need of a second chance, those for whom HE is likely to provide the greatest transformation. The opening justification for minimum entry requirements outlined in the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill is that:

“Students deserve an education that will help them achieve their dreams…”

No one argues with that, but by cracking down on alleged poor quality of university provision, an unintended consequence is that disadvantaged students become collateral damage.

 

Professor John Butcher, Open University

Photo: Tom Mossholder

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