Universities across England have come out against proposals for limiting student numbers and access to loans, describing the plans as likely to crush and entrench disadvantage.
Responding to the government’s consultation, the three main university groups have lined up with the National Union of Students in opposing plans to limit undergraduates taking “low value” courses and stop students from receiving government-backed tuition fee and maintenance loans if they do not have minimum GCSE or A-level grades.
Universities UK (UUK), which represents the leaders of mainstream universities in England, said it “strongly opposes” any introduction of number caps, saying it would most hurt those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“As well as limiting student choice, student number caps entrench disadvantage because students who are unable to move location to attend university have fewer opportunities to apply and be accepted to university, making them more likely to choose a path with poorer employment outcomes,” UUK said.
Disadvantaged students are also among those likely to be most affected by minimum eligibility requirements for loans. UUK warned that the restrictions would have “significant financial implications” for universities, “limiting their ability to provide support for their disadvantaged students and invest locally”.
Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that restricting loans to students with GCSE passes in maths and English, as suggested in the government’s consultation, would have a disproportionate impact on ethnic minority students as well as students who had received free school meals.
Larissa Kennedy, the NUS president said: “This government parrots the language of ‘levelling up’ but these proposals are classist, ableist and racist: they cruelly target those from marginalized communities and seek to gatekeep education.”
The University Alliance (UA), representing the UK’s leading professional and technical universities such as Coventry and Teesside, said the proposals “will only serve to crush aspiration and exacerbate disadvantage”, jeopardizing graduate numbers in key areas such as social work and computer science.
The UA also attacked the proposal to cut funding for students taking foundation year courses, saying they would make the courses unviable and harming disadvantaged and mature students who used them to enter higher education.
Vanessa Wilson, the UA’s chief executive, said: “The areas of focus for the proposed higher education reforms are way off the mark and, if implemented, the consequence… will be the poorest and most disadvantaged in society.”
Rachel Hewitt, the chief executive of the MillionPlus group – which represents modern universities such as Bath Spa and the University of Cumbria – said the policies had “profound and far-reaching implications”.
“MillionPlus remains fundamentally opposed to minimum entry requirements, which are against the core principles of inclusion, aspiration and the power of education,” Hewitt said.
“Universities are best placed to make a determination as to the suitability of each candidate on their own merits. On a purely practical level, minimum requirements are likely to be unworkable, due to the number of exemptions that would need to be taken into account, for example for students with special educational needs.”
In response, a Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have not proposed to bar anyone from going to university: rather, we are starting a conversation on minimum entry requirements and asking whether young people should be pushed straight into a full degree, without being prepared for that level of study.
“We are proposing exemptions for mature students, those with a foundation year, or appropriate certificate or diploma and are supporting these alternative routes through consulting on reducing the cost of foundation years and through our new lifelong loan entitlement, which will provide many different routes to improve a person’s career and life opportunities.
“These exemptions would mean 1% or fewer of total entrants would be affected by either of the minimum eligibility requirements proposals.
“Similarly, the government is not proposing to cap the overall number of people going to university and recognises the transformational power of higher education. We are, however, consulting on how we might prevent low quality courses with poor outcomes from growing uncontrollably.”
However, the DfE’s own equality impact assessment of the proposals found that restricting access to loans “would disproportionately affect students who are black and from ethnic minority groups”.
Black students account for 27% of those enrolled with no GCSE pass grades in English and maths, compared with 8% of students who would be exempt.