An attack on social mobility: the English government’s plans to restrict access to student loans

The Department for Education (DfE) recently set out potential plans to restrict access to government student loans in England for students who lack English and Maths GCSEs, or two A-levels at grade E. These plans are part of a response to the Augar review of post-18 education; a landmark review conducted by finance expert Philip Augar and published in May 2019.

The suggestion to introduce these restrictions come alongside a two-year freeze on tuition fees for English students, which stand at £9,250 a year, and making £2.5bn available for technical qualifications for adult learners through the National Skills Fund. 

These plans were addressed in a speech delivered by higher and further education Minister, Michelle Donelan on the 24th of February. While the speech ignores some elements of the Augar review, such as the suggestion of lowering student loan fees to £7,500 a year, it addresses the Augar panel’s recommendations surrounding student number control. 

Donelan points out that “as of April 2021, the UK’s student loan book stood at £161bn,” arguing that rebalancing the student loan system is more than just a moral obligation. Unfortunately, what follows this reminder of the financial state of the UK student loan system is not a suggestion to reduce the cost of higher education, but rather a suggestion to limit access to higher education for students who were not able to achieve a grade 4 at GCSE Maths and English. 

The suggested purpose of these measures is to discourage the growth of low-quality courses and courses with low post-graduate employment rates, with the idea to direct students to alternative routes which may be suited to them, such as apprenticeships and other forms of higher education. This would then, in turn, prevent students from being saddled with a huge amount of debt and a degree which does not make them more employable. However, there are a few elements of this proposed change that do not serve to achieve these goals. In fact, Alistair Jarvis, the chief executive of universities umbrella group Universities UK argues that “placing a cap on aspiration by reducing the number of places for people to study at university is bad for individuals, the economy and society.” 

The student loan system in England was supposedly founded upon the purpose of increasing social mobility, and many students across the UK rely on these loans in order to pursue higher education. It is true that the university system in the UK does not currently represent a high level of social mobility as it is, not least the University of Edinburgh, which a recent report found to have the second lowest state school intake of all the Russell Group Universities in the academic year 2020/21.

However, recent data does show that 28% of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas applied to UK universities this autumn, as opposed to under 18% in 2013. Additionally, the shocking statistics showing state school students to be underrepresented in Russell Group Universities (which have higher entry grades) only adds to evidence that students with different educational backgrounds, which may include lower GCSE grades, are more frequently attending institutions that may not require Maths and English degrees for entry. 

The consequences of the suggested plan will only further decrease social mobility; these restrictions undoubtedly will be of larger detriment to those from lower-class backgrounds who are more likely to not have an English or Maths GCSE. Figures presented as part of an analysis of the DfE GCSE results data conducted by the Million Plus group of modern universities shows that under this suggested plan, 48% of all disadvantaged students in England would be ineligible for a student loan. 

This is also a regional issue which fits into a larger pattern of class inequality, showing that under the proposed threshold young people in poorer areas of northern England would be hit far harder by this policy than those in wealthier areas in the south. For example, under this plan, 54% of pupils in Great Grimsby would be ineligible for a student loan, compared to 15% in London and Westminster. 

Indeed, the number of students who don’t pass English and Maths who are going on to study university degrees is understood to be already very low by Sir Peter Lampl, founder and executive chair of the Sutton Trust education charity. However, there are many reasons why a student who is completely capable of studying at a high level and going on to succeed in the professional world may not be able to achieve a GCSE in English or Maths. Many students with learning difficulties, who have experienced a particularly traumatic events during their schooling years, or who suffer from debilitating illnesses or mental health issues may be prevented from passing GCSEs. 

Additionally, there is a lack of clarification in how ministers intend to define “poor-quality” courses; Universities UK has suggested that institutions consider factors such as student drop-out figures, graduate unemployment and graduate earnings. Creative graduates typically earn less than other graduates, which begs the question whether the government may use this as an opportunity to reduce the number of arts students in the UK. 

In a country which has turned higher education and the university system into a business, and at that one with a deeply entrenched class bias as well as a frequent disregard for its students, it is difficult but not unexpected to see the DfE taking steps backwards in terms of social mobility. 

Image courtesy of the UK Parliament via Flickr