Universities across England have spoken out against proposals to limit student numbers and access to loans, describing the plans as likely to crush aspirations and entrench disadvantage.
Responding to government consultation, the three main university groups have aligned themselves with the National Union of Students to oppose plans to limit undergraduates taking “low value” courses and prevent students from receive government-backed tuition and maintenance loans if they do not have minimum GCSE or A-Level grades.
Universities UK (UUK), which represents the leaders of traditional universities in England, said it “strongly opposes” any introduction of numerical caps, saying it would hurt people from disadvantaged backgrounds the most.
“In addition to limiting student choice, student numbers limit disadvantage because students who cannot travel to attend college have fewer opportunities to apply and be accepted to college, which makes them more likely to choose a path with poorer employment outcomes,” UUK mentioned.
Disadvantaged students are also among those likely to be most affected by minimum loan eligibility requirements. UUK warned the restrictions would have “significant financial implications” for universities, “limiting their ability to support their disadvantaged students and invest locally”.
Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that restricting loans to students with a GCSE pass in maths and English, as suggested in the government consultation, would have a disproportionate impact on minority students ethnic groups as well as students who had received free school meals.
Larissa Kennedy, President of NUS, said: “This government is repeating the language of ‘race to the top’, but these proposals are classist, ableist and racist: they cruelly target members of marginalized communities and seek to keep education .
The University Alliance (UA), representing the UK’s leading vocational and technical universities such as Coventry and Teesside, said the proposals “will only serve to crush aspirations and exacerbate disadvantage”, undermining the number of graduates in key areas such as social work and computer science.
The AU also attacked the proposal to cut funding for students taking first-year courses, saying it would make the courses unsustainable and hurt disadvantaged and adult students who used them to enter higher education.
Vanessa Wilson, Director General of the AU, said: “The areas on which the proposed higher education reforms focus are far from accurate and, if implemented, the victims… will be the most poor and the most disadvantaged in society.
Rachel Hewitt, 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 run counter to fundamental principles of inclusion, aspiration and the power of education,” Hewitt said.
“Universities are in the best position to determine the suitability of each candidate on their own merits. On a purely practical level, the minimum requirements may be unachievable, due to the number of exemptions to be taken into account, for example for pupils with special educational needs.
In response, a spokesperson for the Department for Education said: ‘We have not offered to ban anyone from going to university: rather we are starting a conversation about minimum entry requirements and asking if young people should be pushed directly towards a full degree, without being prepared for this level of study.
“We are offering exemptions for mature students, those with a foundation year or an appropriate certificate or diploma and supporting these alternative pathways through advice on reducing the cost of foundation years and through our new fee to a lifetime loan, which will provide many different avenues to enhance a person’s career and life opportunities.
“These exemptions would mean that 1% or less of the total number of entrants would be affected by any of the proposed minimum eligibility requirements.
“Similarly, the government is not proposing to cap the total number of people attending university and recognizes the transformative power of higher education. However, we are consulting on how we could prevent poor quality courses with poor results from growing out of control. »
However, the DfE’s own equality impact assessment of the proposals found that restricting access to loans would ‘disproportionately affect black and minority ethnic students’.
Black students make up 27% of those enrolling without GCSE pass grades in English and maths, compared to 8% of students who would be exempt.