Speculation continues about what the Augar Review will recommend – and what action will follow as a result. One possibility getting airtime concerns a grade threshold to enter university which may also be linked with access to student finance. I thank my colleague and Head of AccessHE, Graeme Atherton, who helped to prepare this piece.
One striking and not-so-hidden strength of higher education in London is the diversity of its students. London leads not just England but the world in terms of how it opens the opportunity to benefit from higher education to students from every background in many different ways.
It has been forecast in a recent paper from AccessHE, the widening access division of London Higher, that by 2030 nearly 70% of younger students from London entering HE will be from BAME backgrounds and over half will be first generation entering HE. Proposed reforms to the system which create a qualification floor below which students will not be able to access student financial support threaten this diversity. Evidence suggests that of the 10 higher education institutions who have the highest number of students who are at or below this floor (which it is suggested could be the equivalent of 3Ds at A Level), 5 are based in London. It is in London where the largest numbers of students affected by the qualifications floor are to be found.
The students in these, and other institutions likely to be worst affected by the change, are those over 19 who often enter HE with lower qualification levels. London has more mature students than any other part of England.
It has been mooted that the potential package of reforms recommended by the Augar review might also include a reduction in the maximum fee that can be charged to prospective students, and possibly a return of some form of maintenance support. Presumably this would be packaged as a means of reversing the decline in part time and mature students we have seen since 2011. The impact of improving financial support for part time students in Wales has seen a dramatic rise of 35% in the participation of such students last year. Any hopes of such improvements in England will be cut off at the knees if students are unable to access this support because they do not meet an arbitrary entry threshold. Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck University of London and a former Chair of London Higher, is amongst those who argue strongly that tying loans to grades would punish mature students.
Again, any further decline in higher education participation this reform leads to would bear down particularly heavily on London. Whereas, at the same time, it has been forecast that from 2024 to 2034 over 70% of the new jobs created in London will require higher education qualifications.
If this reform is introduced then universities inside and outside the capital will have no option but to try and deal with it. In particular they would be likely to focus on partnerships with schools and colleges on getting students over that crucial threshold where they can access financial support. This will only put more pressure on students taking A-Levels. It will become an even more ‘high stakes’ examination with the pressure loaded on those students who are often more vulnerable. There appears to be an assumption underlying this reform that those who get less than 180 UCAS points are ‘weak’ students who don’t deserve the chance to go to HE. Anyone who has taught in compulsory education will know that there are a myriad of reasons why a student might be facing a lower than ideal mark in their examinations – very often because of pressures going on in other parts of their life. In an era where policymakers need to be ever more aware of wellbeing and mental health issues for all ages but especially younger people, this potential ‘reform’ would not appear to have been thought out.
It was heartening to hear that the new Universities Minister, Chris Skidmore, in an interview with the THE, said “I don’t believe that we should be having [a threshold], because ultimately it’s about protecting the most disadvantaged students who may not have had the opportunity to reach those [higher grade] qualifications”. Of course the damage that could be caused by restricting access to higher education in this way would not be confined to students from London, but like many policy changes, the impact would be most intense in the capital. All of us at London Higher will be hoping that Mr Skidmore’s view prevails.
For more AccessHE publications please visit the AccessHE website.
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