Authors: Julie Cummings (Public Affairs & Communications Officer) & Hannah Thomson (Research & Evaluation Officer)
In 2018, the then-Prime Minister Theresa May commissioned Sir Philip Augar to carry out a review of post-18 education and funding in England. Sir Philip Augar published his recommendations in the Augar Review in 2019, calling for a reduction of student fees and an increase in government grants to fund higher education.
In February 2022, the Government published two consultations to hear views from universities, individuals and other organisations on proposals for higher education access and funding in response to the Augar Review.
A joint statement from the Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi MP and the Minister for Higher and Further Education Michelle Donelan MP sets out the Government’s aims for higher education in England. They want to create ‘a fairer and more sustainable system’ for students, institutions and the taxpayer whilst also ensuring that students have confidence they will be enrolled on high-quality courses. The Government defines high-quality courses as those with low drop-out rates and which lead to ‘good outcomes’ for students such as progression to graduate jobs or further study.
There are a number of proposals that the Government is considering to achieve these aims. Given that our mission at The Brilliant Club is to increase the number of students from less advantaged backgrounds who progress to university and succeed when they get there, we focused our efforts on exploring the impact of two proposals in particular: student number controls and minimum eligibility requirements.
Each of these proposals has the potential to impact the students we work with and whether they decide to study at university or elsewhere. So, we met with two of our Brilliant Club Ambassadors in March to hear their views on the Government proposals. The conversations formed the basis of our consultation response and this blog.
The Government has suggested that SNCs could be used to ‘prioritise provision which offers the best outcomes for students, society and the economy’. It argues that limiting the number of people who can progress to university will prevent the ‘uncontrolled expansion’ of higher education which can lead to poorer quality provision for students.
While our ambassadors agreed that university is not the best option for all students and that information, advice and guidance in secondary schools about post-18 options is heavily weighted towards university, they were sceptical that there was any way to implement SNCs without disproportionately affecting disadvantaged students.
The consultation document references the relaxation of SNCs for university applicants who scored above ABB in their A-levels from 2013/14 onwards. This means that students with higher grades would be exempt from the student number caps, whilst those with lower grades would not. Using SNCs in this way, by limiting students with lower attainment but not those with higher attainment, could have unintended consequences on students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
We know that attainment is strongly linked to socio-economic background. Research by the Education Policy Institute demonstrates that by the age of 19, the average disadvantaged student is roughly three A-level grades behind their more advantaged peers.
Therefore, a cap on those who achieved below ABB but not on those who achieved above ABB at A-level could in practice operate as a cap on students from less advantaged backgrounds who typically have lower attainment. As one focus group participant explained it:
“It’s very difficult because I think there’s no uniformity between schools in attainment. If someone in a state school gets an A*, it’s not necessarily the same as if someone in a private school getting that A*.”
If SNCs based on attainment were to be implemented, more funding and resources should be available to schools for attainment-raising activities for the least advantaged students. One way to implement this attainment-raising activity would be through greater school and university partnerships, which the Office for Students has indicated as a priority for the sector.
In addition to SNCs, the Government is also consulting on whether to implement minimum eligibility requirements which would require university applicants to meet certain school grades to qualify for student finance to fund higher education.
The Government says that it wants to be led by the Robbins Principle: “University courses should be available to all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.” However, it also notes that there is a ‘specific problem’ of students starting undergraduate courses who “are not yet qualified by ability or attainment to pursue them” and who may be better served by another type of study or training.
The participants in our focus group highlighted the contradiction between the Robbins Principle and the idea of limiting access to student finance, but not university, through MERs.
“I think straight away it just seems like an elitist thing. The people who it’s going to affect negatively, it’s always going to be the people at the bottom, the people who are the most disadvantaged. It’s not really going to impact people who have the money to access education. To me, this doesn’t seem like a logical thing to do at all.” Brilliant Club Ambassador, current undergraduate student.
The idea of using MERs to bar access to student finance was seen as unfair and would disproportionately lock less advantaged students out of university – those with the resources to attend without student finance would be able to do so, regardless of attainment. In other words, MERs are not a limit on the number of students who can attend university, they are a limit on the number of students who could not afford it without student finance.
“It just seems like a very elitist thing to even suggest it. I’m sure there are other ways to measure entry requirements.” Brilliant Club Ambassador, current undergraduate student.
“Overall, what is this trying to achieve? It’s not equality or parity for everyone.” Brilliant Club Ambassador, current undergraduate student.
It is hard to see how MERs could be fairly implemented without considering disadvantage as a metric for exemption. In addition to the attainment gap linked to socio-economic background, we know there are significant regional discrepancies too. For example, while the average attainment gap at 19 is three A-level grades across England, this gap between the most and least advantaged students increases to 4.5 A-level grades in Knowsley, North Somerset and Stockton-on-Tees.
This is a challenge the Government itself has acknowledged through the Levelling Up White Paper and the Schools White Paper. Plans for Education Investment Areas are welcome, but the detail must be set out and then implemented to make sure opportunity is evenly spread across the country. This will require long-term thinking and sustained investment. For now, the evidence is clear: a significant attainment gap exists and this must be addressed before attainment can be considered on an equal footing across the country as a metric for access student finance, or for student number controls.
We were pleased to have the opportunity to put students’ opinions to policymakers through the consultation process. The focus group was part of our ongoing commitment to ensure that the voices of our communities – be it parents, PhD tutors, or students – are at the centre of our work.
Many thanks to our Brilliant Club Ambassadors who contributed to the ideas explored in this blog.
You can read more about our policy work here.