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No English and Maths GCSE, no student loan: UK government reaches a new low

‘It’s genuinely nothing short of class warfare’: Dazed speaks to students who would be affected by this proposed policy

Under new government plans, pupils who fail GCSE English and Maths could be banned from taking out student loans.

Ministers are set to publish a series of new proposals this week which are about limiting the cost of universities to the taxpayer – essentially reversing New Labour policies from the 2000s which sought to increase student numbers. This news follows a pledge made by the government last month to crack down on so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees.

The Department for Education’s (DfE) proposals will include new minimum entry requirements for universities to ensure pupils “aren’t being pushed into higher education before they are ready”. According to The Telegraph, the plans include a suggestion that students who do not get 2 Es at A-Level (or equivalent) or a pass in English and Maths at GCSE should be barred from getting a student loan. The proposal seeks to ensure that “poor-quality, low-cost courses aren’t incentivised to grow uncontrollably.”

While students themselves have raised concerns about the standard of teaching on some university courses, it’s still unclear how ministers intend to define a “poor-quality” course. Universities UK (UUK) has suggested that institutions consider factors such as student drop-out figures, student satisfaction, contribution to culture, graduate unemployment, and graduate earnings – but as creative graduates earn less than other graduates, it appears that the government could take this opportunity to reduce the number of arts students

This proposal to set high entry requirements for university throws up a number of urgent questions. What if a pupil experiences a traumatic event which impacts their grades? What if a pupil falls ill? What if a pupil has learning difficulties? Plus – is it really necessary for a Fine Art student to be able to do quadratic equations? Or for an Engineering student to know why Curley’s wife wears red nail varnish?

This proposal would also adversely affect prospective disadvantaged students. While private school pupils can approach their teachers for extra support and wealthier parents can shell out for private tutoring, this isn’t an option for most young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

24-year-old Jacob has a Master’s degree in International Disaster Management from the University of Manchester, but would have been barred from attending university if these measures were in place when he applied. “I sat 11 GCSEs and passed about four or five. I got an A in Maths but I failed English Language,” he says. “There’s not a chance in hell I could have got to university without a loan because my mum wouldn’t have been able to help me out financially.”

He explains that experiencing domestic abuse from his father impacted his ability to fulfil his academic potential. “In January 2014, my mum filed for divorce then a few months later I had my GCSE exams. It was a bit of a quite messy divorce so it was quite challenging for me.” As his mother worked as a childminder on a low income, Jacob also found it difficult to revise at home and struggled to afford school meals and bus passes.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and executive chair of the Sutton Trust education charity, said: “Universities are the key route to social mobility, so it is crucial that young people who have the potential to benefit from higher education are able to do so, whatever their background.”

“The introduction of any minimum grade requirement is always going to have the biggest impact on the poorest young people, as they are more likely to have lower grades because of the disadvantages they have faced in their schooling.”

“It’s actually such a sinister and calculated attack on children who’ve already been through such a hard time. It’s genuinely nothing short of class warfare” – Jacob

Jacob says he feels “sickened” by the new proposals. “It’s actually such a sinister and calculated attack on children who've already been through such a hard time. It’s genuinely nothing short of class warfare,” he says. “I do not understand any logical thought process behind it or see how it benefits poor young people in any way, shape or form – because it doesn’t.”

“The Tories constantly harped on about levelling up in their election run, but this policy just shows how utterly meaningless and empty that slogan was,” he continues. “We know that your postcode impacts what grades you get and certain demographics struggle with academic attainment in schools and in university. This is just going to make things even harder for poor kids.”

22-year-old Cara, a second-year Health and Social Care student at Manchester Metropolitan University, is also alarmed by the news. Cara, who received a D in her Maths GCSE, tells Dazed that she struggled with school due to the lack of appropriate support for her dyslexia: “I worked really hard to get the grades I did in my GCSEs and it worked even harder to try and get my A-Levels,” she says.

“I did everything I possibly could to try and get the best grade I possibly could,” she continues. “It’s not anyone's choice to struggle through school. It's upsetting to hear that the government are now [potentially] penalising people like myself for something that's out of their control. I just think it's really unfair. Not everyone has the same abilities.”

Alistair Jarvis CBE, chief executive of UUK, has also spoken out against the proposed legislation. He said: “Government should expand opportunity, not constrain it. Placing a cap on aspiration by reducing the number of places for people to study at university is bad for individuals, the economy and society. Government should ensure that anyone with the potential to succeed at university has [the] opportunity to do so.”