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Fears that half of England's poorest students will not be able to attend university | Higher education

Nearly half of all underprivileged pupils in England might not go to college under the government's plans for a minimum GCSE entry level for higher education, warn university leaders.

The vice chancellors believe the government is poised to introduce a new entry threshold for a place in college courses as a means of curbing its mounting student loan debt, with outstanding loans reaching 140 billion pounds last year. They expect the government to announce that students will not be eligible for a student loan unless they have at least a level 4 (the equivalent of a former C grade) in math and English at GCSE.

An analysis of the Department of Education (DfE) GCSE results data conducted by the Million Plus group of modern universities and submitted to the Guardian shows that under the plan, 48% of all disadvantaged students in England would be ineligible for a student loan to pay the £ 9,250- annual fees.

Professor Rama Thirunamachandran, President of Million Plus and Vice Chancellor of Christ Church University of Canterbury, said: “This policy reinforces the inequality between rich and poor, north and south and black and white. It is introducing an 11-plus system through the back door. "

Government figures show that 52% of disadvantaged youth achieve grade 4 in English and GCSE math compared to the national average for 71%. "So you're almost saying to a generation of underprivileged kids, 'You can't get a student loan,'" Thirunamachandran said. "That's incorporating inequality, not leveling up."

Million Plus analyzed the GCSE results in math and English by parliamentary constituency and found that the policy would affect young people in the poorer areas of the north of England much harder than in the richer areas of the south.

We have already labeled a third of students who take the GCSE English and math exams as failures, this will only doom them more "

Lee Elliot Major

For example, below the proposed threshold, 54% of Great Grimsby students would not be eligible for a student loan, as would 50% in Leeds Central, 49% in Bootle, Knowsley and Nottingham North, and 47% in Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough. In contrast, in the south only 12% of students would be excluded in Hitchin and Harpenden, 14% in St Albans and 15% in London and Westminster, Chipping Barnet and Richmond Park.

Thiru namachandran said: “The question is, if you are a parent in one of these less privileged regions in the north, will you just accept that your child does not have the same right to go to college as someone in a more privileged place? In the south? That is the political bet that the government is taking. ”

It is believed that the government believes that many voters would find it reasonable to expect students to be proficient in numeracy and literacy, so the idea is a politically safe way to reduce the number of students.

Claire Callender, Professor of Higher Education at Birkbeck University and the Institute of Education at University College London, said: "This is a limit on the number of students out the back door, but not a limit on all potential students, just the most disadvantaged and those most affected by Covid ".

She argued that a minimum entry-level requirement indicated "an abandonment of any government concern about expanding HE participation and fostering social mobility" and said that "cementing existing social divisions among young people in a at a time when they are widening rather than narrowing. ”

Sir David Bell, former permanent secretary of the DfE and now v Chancellor of the University of Sunderland, said the entry threshold would be seen as" a limit to aspiration ".

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David Bell, vice chancellor of the University of Sunderland, says that entry requirements will be seen as' a limit to aspiration '

"Politicians and legislators always underestimate that really felt aspiration to get to college," he said. "They often falsely assume that people in a city like Sunderland just don't want to go, but that's just not the case." In January, the government said: "We are currently too skewed towards degrees above all else." And last year, the Minister of Universities, Michelle Donelan, accused universities of "taking advantage" of underprivileged students by selling them silly courses that left them burdened with debt.

Bell said the idea of ​​colleges being interested only in "herding students" like "cash cows" was "offensive and unfair." "We really want them to be successful," he added. "It is universities like ours that do most of the heavy lifting in terms of social mobility."

He said universities like his had a lot of experience making nuanced decisions about the potential of applicants and whether they would face a degree course. Sunderland accepts a high proportion of mature students, many of whom do not have traditional qualifications and would be excluded under the new proposed system.

Lee Elliot Major, a professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, who is leading a research project on helping those who drop out of school without basic literacy or numeracy, said: “This is effectively shutting down college prospects at three years for many poorer children. Our research shows the depressingly strong link between poor performance on early age tests and failing the GCSE English and math exams at age 16. ”

Children in the fifth lowest income bracket are five times more likely to drop out of school without passing the GCSEs in English and math than those in the fifth highest income, their research shows.

“This measure exposes the fundamental flaw at the heart of our education system: We already labeled a third of students who take the GCSE English and math exams as failing, this will only doom them further,” said Elliot Major.

Academic staff at modern universities also say courses such as paramedicine, nursing and social care would lose students under the proposal. model, as England is experiencing staff shortages in these professions.

Dr. Signy Henderson, dean of student success at the University of Cumbria, said his paramedical science degree would suffer. "We all know how desperately the country needs more qualified paramedics," he said. "We often have students who have real potential, but who went to schools where they say no one pressured them, or they grew up in homes where no one understood the value of good GCSEs."

The DfE said it does not comment on speculation about discussions of minimum qualification requirements and possible exemptions, which it said were ongoing.

However, a spokesperson said: “This is a government that has driven aspirations and increased opportunities for disadvantaged people across the country, and this year a record proportion of disadvantaged students have started college as a result. We are committed to continuing to expand opportunities. ”

He added: “But we also want moving forward to be as important as getting in, so last month we asked universities to restart their access expansion plans with ambitious goals to support students both before and during their time at the university, reducing dropout rates and improving progression to high-paying and highly-skilled jobs for disadvantaged students. ”

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