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Proposed minimum eligibility requirements for student loans could reduce higher education participation for ethnic minorities and poorer students

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New IFS research finds that a blanket minimum eligibility requirement (MER) for access to student loans would be a highly imperfect way of improving student outcomes. It would increase the already large socio-economic gaps in higher education and would disproportionally affect ethnic minority students.

The government recently announced a consultation on changes to the higher education system, including on the introduction of minimum eligibility requirements where students would need a minimum of a grade 4/C in English and maths GCSE, or two E grades at A level to be able to access student loans. The specified purpose of this policy is to ensure that ‘students undertaking degree study have attained the baseline skills required to engage with and benefit from the course’.

The research, submitted to the consultation, assesses who would be affected by the introduction of these MERs, and how effective they would be at reducing the number of students with poor outcomes and on ‘low-value’ courses. It focuses on individuals from the 2011 and 2012 GCSE cohorts who started a full-time undergraduate degree at age 18 or 19 to measure the likely impact of these proposed changes.

Key findings from the research include:

  • For the 2011 and 2012 GCSEs cohorts, almost one in four undergraduates who were eligible for free school meals (FSMs) at age 16 would not have been able to access student loans had a GCSE English and maths requirement been in place. That compares with 9% of non-FSM state school students and only 5% of private school students.
  • An English and maths GCSE requirement would have had a much bigger impact on participation by black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani students than on white British students. Around 7% of white British undergraduates from state schools would have been impacted by the GCSE English and maths requirement, and around 10% of Chinese and Indian students. In contrast, nearly one in five (18%) Bangladeshi and Pakistani students would have been affected, and nearly one in four (23%) black undergraduates. This reflects the fact that ethnic minority pupils from these groups have much higher university attendance rates than their white counterparts despite similar age 16 attainment.
  • The impact on socio-economic gaps in access to higher education would be much smaller if, instead of passes in English and maths GCSE, individuals are required to have at least two Es at A level (or equivalent) to be eligible for student loans. FSM and certain ethnic minority groups would still be disproportionately affected relative to other groups of undergraduates, but far fewer students would be affected overall. For instance, only 5% of current FSM undergraduates would have been affected by the two Es requirement compared with 23% under a requirement of a pass in English and maths GCSE.
  • Students who did not achieve these minimum qualifications have worse degree outcomes than their peers with higher attainment, but close to 80% still graduate and around 40% do so with a First or Upper Second class degree.
  • The GCSE requirement would have excluded more than one in five 18- and 19-year-old entrants to social work courses and 9% of 18- and 19-year-old entrants to education courses from obtaining student loans. These are subjects where there are low returns in terms of earnings, but which have high social value.

Laura van der Erve, Senior Research Economist at IFS and an author of the research, said:

‘A blanket minimum eligibility requirement would disproportionately impact students who haven’t had the same opportunities and support to meet the attainment threshold and would result in a widening of socio-economic gaps in access to university. Providing additional support to ensure all students leave school with basic levels of literacy and numeracy would be a better way to make sure all pupils, including those who go on to attend university, have the skills needed to succeed. This would be particularly valuable in the context of England’s internationally low levels of basic skills.’

Elaine Drayton, Research Economist at IFS and an author of the research, said:

‘Requiring students to pass GCSE maths and English in order to be eligible for student loans would be a blunt tool for targeting undergraduate provision with poor employment prospects. While it would remove access to student loans for entrants on low-earnings courses like creative arts and communications, it would heavily impact some subjects with strong earnings returns such as business and computer science, with 13% and 17% of age 18–19 entrants affected, respectively. Other courses with low returns but considerable social value would also be impacted, including social work and education.’

Sector Response

NUS UK President Larissa Kennedy said:

“This research shows that plans to introduce minimum entry requirements are an attack on opportunity. This Government parrots the language of “levelling up” but these proposals are classist, ableist and racist: they cruelly target those from marginalised communities, and seek to gatekeep education”.

A Department for Education spokesperson said:

“We have more 18 year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university than ever before. Our consultation is inviting views not on how we close doors, but on how we ensure that there are many routes to improve a person’s career and life opportunities – whether that is ensuring students are best prepared for university through a foundation year or helping them pursue an apprenticeship or further education.

“It is unacceptable for students – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds – to be pushed onto higher education courses that do not improve their career prospects. Evidence shows that students with lower prior attainment are less likely to complete their degree and get a ‘good’ classification, and more likely to have worse employment and degree outcomes. The aim of minimum eligibility requirements is to make sure that only those who will benefit from it, go on to study at degree level, regardless of their background.”

Department for Education Background Information

  • We are consulting on this proposal and no final decisions have been made yet.
  • Should Ministers proceed with a MER, the extent to which groups who share particular characteristics are impacted will depend on the level of prior attainment and qualifications used to set the MER, and what exemptions, if any, are put in place. All students would be positively impacted if the MER leads them to choose different courses or education pathways which result in better outcomes.
  • Incorporated in our proposal for minimum eligibility requirements is exempting certain types of students. The Department is considering the potential impact of its proposals and what appropriate exemptions might be needed. This is an open consultation and we have asked a question about whether any other exemptions should form part of the policy. We welcome views on this.
  • In the HE reform consultation, we set out evidence from the Office for Students linking poor attainment and outcomes (see source 44 and 45 on page 38 of the consultation DfE command paper template (
  • A university degree should not be the default choice for everyone, and evidence shows that not all students benefit from a level 6 university education. A significant number of students are being encouraged to enrol on to degree courses for which they are not yet properly equipped, but who, nonetheless, make a significant investment in an HE course. Students with poorer entry qualifications are less likely to complete their degree and get a ‘good’ classification, and more likely to have worse employment and degree outcomes.
  • Evidence in the recent IFS report on lifetime returns:
  • OfS data showing that degree outcomes are worse for students with lower prior attainment:
  • In 2021, 18-year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds were 82% more likely to go to university than in 2010 and we know there is more to do.
  • That is why as part of these reforms we have announced proposals for a new National State Scholarship scheme for high achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed at university, as well as proposing to slash the cost of foundation years to make these more affordable for those who need a second chance at education, to ensure that higher education remains open and accessible for all who have the ability to benefit from it.
  • Everyone over 16 without English or maths GCSE or equivalent is supported and fully funded to continue studying these crucial subjects. We will consider how we can continue to support students to retake exams to reach this level of attainment where needed, at both GCSE and A-level (or equivalent).
  • Any child who falls behind in maths or English will get the support they need to get back on track, as part of a pledge the Education Secretary set out at the launch of the Schools White Paper. Schools will identify children who need help, provide targeted support via a range of proven methods such as small group tuition, and keep parents informed about their child’s progress.

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