This blog is part of a series looking at challenges and opportunities in education as we come out of the pandemic, based on interviews with a range of experts carried out during 2021.

Last Friday saw the close of two major government consultations on post-18 education. One on higher education policy reform which acted as the government’s response to the Augar Review, along with another on the Lifelong Loan Entitlement – a broad-based system of student finance for learners throughout their lifetime both in and out of higher education, central to the government’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee. The Trust’s full response to both consultations can be viewed here.

The policies outlined in both consultations had been bubbling under the surface for the past year, including measures such as student number controls (SNCs) to limit the number of university entrants, and minimum entry requirements (MERs) to access student loans for higher education. Both have raised alarm bells with those interested in widening access to university and both were prominent topics in our interviews with experts.

Number controls and minimum entry requirements

The introduction of number caps for students was a big concern for several interviewees, with one going so far as to say the biggest priority for WP should be ensuring there are no caps on student numbers. Another highlighted the role of demographic change, with the number of 18-year-olds on the rise, which they were concerned could lead to high demand, and negative consequences for those without the resources, networks or ‘know how’. They were concerned that admissions tutors, under pressure to explain why some students did not receive places, may go for ‘safe’ decisions, rather than prioritising under-represented groups.

The response to MERs was similarly negative. Interviewees often mentioned the impact the policy may have on disadvantaged young people – discouraging capable applicants who think they may not achieve the grades, reverting back to dated attitudes of university only being for “gifted” students and potentially reversing progress on social mobility. The tension between MERs and contextual admissions was also mentioned several times, though it was thought that introduction of a hard minimum entry requirement was unlikely without some form of contextualisation.

“Universities are supposed to be autonomous and set their own entry requirements. Some students have low A Level grades but do very well in university. Some chose university for very different reasons, it is so personal and should be done on a case-by-case basis. I am not sure what MERs would add to the current system”.

Some participants thought the policy may negatively interfere with the autonomy of institutions and their judgement on who is in a position to benefit from and thrive in the courses that they offer. Some were particularly concerned about the possible impacts on arts and humanities subjects, with the policy acting as a way to reduce spaces on courses sometimes viewed as lower value.

Nonetheless, there was certainly recognition from some interviewees that the system needs reform, not because of too many students entering higher education, but because they thought that not everyone is taking a programme that will optimise their life chances.

“If MERs are brought in, you have to have something around it to recognise potential”.

Nevertheless, the strong consensus amongst interviewees here was that MER is not the answer, with the real question being around what higher education is for and what will benefit the economy and society more widely.

Lifelong learning

In their proposal, the government acknowledge the need of high-quality alternative qualifications to a traditional undergraduate degree. They also recognise this as a key part of making flexible lifelong learning and the lifelong loan entitlement, the subject of a second consultation, successful.

While the Trust is generally supportive of the principles, several concerns were raised by the experts interviewed about the plans for the lifelong loan entitlement. One felt the policy was inconsistent, with the lifetime skills guarantee offering funded access to a set of level 3 courses, but requiring learners to self-fund or take on debt to study other qualifications, and with no maintenance support. Another felt that the promise of the new loan entitlement is undermined by the separate and impermeable tracks of academic vs technical education, and that for lifelong learning to work, there needs to be greater ability to transfer between these routes. It is therefore welcome that facilitating credit transfer has been a key goal of the proposed reforms.

An interviewee commented that if lifelong learning is to be respected and seen as accessible, investment in careers guidance in the post-18 phase will be absolutely crucial. They felt this would ensure that young people do not feel that they have to carry on with education straight after leaving school for fear of missing out on it forever, as well as equipping those in more established careers with the information to make good decisions on up-skilling.

Looking at views on lifelong learning in general, fears about funding for the policy also stood out, as well as the government’s commitment to the policy.

“There are plenty of good ideas being thrown around, but that the lack of strategy and funding prevents them from becoming reality”.

Whilst the principle of the ‘skills guarantee’ was positively viewed, interviewees were concerned that current plans did not match up to that idea. In particular, the limited list of approved Level 3 qualifications was seen by some as too narrow, and didn’t reflect the idea of offering a wide range of learning options for people across their lives. Interviewees generally wanted to see funding available throughout someone’s life, with incentives within the education system for adults to do learning in chunks they could step in and out of. While the plans announced this year are in line with this ambition, the devil will be in the detail and implementation.

Conclusion

Higher education, technical education and post-18 choices have been under the microscope this year. The government’s desire to limit the number of young people attending university has been a controversial one. While it is right to acknowledge that university is not necessarily the best choice for everyone, the proposed policies are too blunt an instrument. The ultimate focus of any reshaping of post-18 pathways should be on young people themselves and maximising informed choice. In order to do this, there needs to be a focus on a) increasing the supply of quality alternative pathways to higher education, as well as their financial attractiveness in comparison to HE by providing maintenance packages that put technical education on a level playing field with the academic route; and b) improving information, advice in guidance in schools to ensure that young people are informed on the range of options open to them, and the right pathways for achieving their goals.

While it is sensible that the government should have the ability to identify and fill strategic skills gaps in the economy, this must be balanced with student choice and equity. Accordingly, carrots rather than sticks might be a better approach. Number controls and minimum entry requirements are at best a distraction from the real goal of a post-18 system that caters to the aspirations of young people, the retraining needs of mature learners, and the requirements of the modern labour market. At worst, they could act as barriers to aspiration, fair access to higher education, and ultimately social mobility. The removal of number controls in 2015 has coincided with a sustained increase in under-represented groups progressing to higher education. It is something of a truism that expanding the pie gives a better chance for each to have their share. Restricting supply can only serve to make competition for limited resources even more fierce, which is always going to advantage those with greater resources. Focusing on creating a diverse system of high-quality educational opportunities of different types and at different levels, and ensuring fair access to the best opportunities, will be key if we want to genuinely level up post-18 education.

For more information, see our introductory blog, where you will also find links to the whole series.

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