English universities await clarity on impact of GCSE entry bar

As spending review looms, government debate on grade threshold for entry bar may decide whether it is ‘symbolic’ or more

October 12, 2021
The high jump bar height is adjusted and measured by an official to illustrate English universities await clarity on impact of GCSE entry bar
Source: Getty

Questions ahead of the spending review yet to be resolved for English universities include the level of a GCSE-based minimum entry requirement, deciding whether that bar is “symbolic” or something more, and whether ministers seek a system of student number controls.

The Westminster government’s comprehensive spending review announcement on 27 October will set departmental spending limits for the next three years, while the government has also said it will issue its “final response” to the Augar review of post-18 education alongside it.

It is expected that the government will announce plans to lower the repayment threshold on student loans, cutting the costs of the system by recouping more money from graduates.

And ministers are also expected to unveil a minimum entry requirement to qualify for loans to study at a higher education institution, setting the bar using English and maths GCSEs, as Times Higher Education was the first to report in April.

THE understands that there is debate in the government about whether to set the bar at grade 4 for GCSE English and maths (a “standard pass”) or grade 5 (a “strong pass”). There is a figure of 4,000 circulating in the government for the number of students currently at higher education institutions without grade 4 at GCSE English and maths, it is said.

A GCSE threshold would have a profound impact for any student barred from accessing funding for university study, while the equalities impact – for example, on students with dyslexia – is also likely to generate controversy.

However, with 1.5 million undergraduate students enrolled at English higher education institutions, 4,000 would be a tiny proportion of the total.

A grade 4 threshold would have a largely “symbolic” effect on universities, some have predicted. But a grade 5 threshold would have a greater, more unknown, impact.

The government intends that a minimum entry requirement, coupled with making university more “expensive” via student loan changes, will deter students from studying at some lower-tariff universities, one source suggested.

The spending review is expected to detail a funding settlement and announce an “implementation consultation” – with the grade 4 or 5 question potentially put out to consultation.

Some in the sector also expect, additionally to a minimum entry requirement, a plan for student number controls that could be applied at institution, subject or course level. That could potentially use the absolute baselines on quality, covering metrics including the proportion of students on a course going into graduate jobs, being developed by the Office for Students.

However, others argued that with consultation on plans arising from the Augar response already delayed by the failure of the Department for Education and the Treasury to agree on a way forward – consultation was originally promised for spring 2021 – there was little chance of securing agreement on such a granular, far-reaching plan.

“Generally, I can’t see how they can do very much at the spending review. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Augar response is pushed back – because as you start to look at these detailed things, you quickly realise that you need to reform the whole system, from funding to quangos,” said Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester.

“I just don’t see the detailed work, or perhaps more significantly any real sense of agreement on priorities, principles. So at the moment, I think it’s the more marginal measures – repayment threshold, interest rates and entry requirements – that remain most likely.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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