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Is the Government set to ‘level down’ higher education?

17 March 2022

By James Surallie

Education, Education, Education. The words drilled into me as a child as the key to unlocking a world of possibilities were also used by former Prime Minister Tony Blair at the 1996 Labour Party Conference to set out his main priority if he were to enter No 10. Since this speech, and Blair’s goal to send 50 percent of young people to university, the higher education sector has exploded, reaching a new peak in 2021, as 37.9% of the entire UK 18-year-old population was set to start a full-time undergraduate course. As more pupils decide to take the university route, it appears the Government does not want this upward trend to continue. 

In response to the Augur Review of Post-18 Education and Funding, the Department for Education (DfE) recently set out plans to ensure pupils “aren’t being pushed into higher education before they are ready”. In a bid to reduce student numbers and see more young people take on apprenticeships, the reforms would introduce both student number controls on “low quality courses” and minimum entry requirements, which could see student loans withheld from pupils without a Grade 4 – equivalent to a C in the previous system – in English and Maths GCSEs.  

Writing in Conservative Home, Minister of State for Higher and Further Education, Michelle Donelan MP stated that the proposals, alongside increasing student loan repayments from 30 to 40 years, would “ensure that our universities not only survive, but thrive”. But reaction to these reforms have been met with fierce criticism, with the Government being accused of placing a “cap on aspiration”.  

Analysis by the University and College Application Service (UCAS) suggests that the Government’s plan would only impact a minority of students, as they discovered that about 10% of university applicants do not have English and Maths GCSE passes when they leave school. However, research by MillionPlus, the association for Modern Universities in the UK, indicates that nearly half of students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds would be ineligible for a student loan if the new measures were to be implemented. After a record number of pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds started university last year, not only could these proposals impact thousands of students, but it may also have a detrimental impact on the government’s ambition to ‘level up’.  

The investigation by MillionPlus also revealed that the proposed threshold would hit young people in less affluent areas of northern England far more than those in the South - particularly impacting those in Red Wall seats. Following the long-awaited levelling up white paper arguably failing to live up to expectations, parents and young people in Red Wall seats may perceive this as even more evidence that the Government is not on track to deliver its flagship policy.  

Whether the government’s reforms will actually achieve the objective of reducing university numbers won’t be seen for years, as a consistent downward trend will need to be proven. By then, a new government, and perhaps even a new party, may be in power. However, the short-term impact could be the government unintentionally sabotaging its own agenda if the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill isn’t sufficient in offering credible alternatives to university to those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.