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

A new IFS study finds that a general Minimum Eligibility Requirement (MER) for accessing student loans would be a very flawed way to improve student outcomes. This would increase the already wide socio-economic gaps in higher education and disproportionately affect ethnic minority students.

The government recently announced a consultation on changes to the higher education system, including the introduction of minimum eligibility requirements where students would need a minimum of a 4/C grade in English and Maths GCSE, or two E grades at A level to be able to access student loans. The specific objective of this policy is to ensure that “students entering university studies have acquired the basic skills required to follow and benefit from the course”.

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

Key research findings include:

  • For the 2011 and 2012 GCSE cohorts, almost one in four undergraduate students eligible for free school meals (FSM) at age 16 would not have been able to access student loans if a GCSE English and maths requirement had been in place. This compares to 9% of non-FSM public school students and only 5% of private school students.
  • A GCSE requirement in English and maths would have had a much bigger impact on the participation of black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani students than on white British students. Around 7% of white UK public school students would have been affected by the GCSE English and maths requirement, and around 10% of Chinese and Indian students. In contrast, nearly one in five Bangladeshi and Pakistani students (18%) were reportedly affected, and nearly one in four black students (23%). This reflects the fact that ethnic minority students in these groups have much higher college attendance rates than their white counterparts despite a similar age of 16.
  • The impact on socio-economic gaps in access to higher education would be much smaller if, instead of passing the GCSE in English and Maths, individuals were required to have at least two Es at A level (or equivalent ) to be eligible for student loans. FSM and some ethnic minority groups would still be disproportionately affected compared to other groups of undergraduate students, but far fewer students would be affected overall. For example, only 5% of current undergraduate FSM students would have been affected by the two Es requirement, compared to 23% under a GCSE English and Maths pass requirement.
  • Students who have not achieved these minimum qualifications fare worse than their more educated peers, but almost 80% still graduate and around 40% do so with a first or upper second class degree.
  • The GCSE requirement is said to have prevented more than one in five students aged 18 and 19 from taking social work courses and 9% of 18 and 19 year olds enrolled in education courses from obtaining a a student loan. These are materials with a low return in terms of income, but which have a high social value.

Laura van der Erve, senior research economist at IFS and author of the research, said:

“A general minimum eligibility requirement would have a disproportionate impact on students who have not had the same opportunities and support to reach the threshold of success and would lead to a widening of socio-economic gaps in access to education. university. Providing additional support to ensure that all students leave school with basic levels of literacy and numeracy would be a better way to ensure that all students, including those who go on to university, have the skills needed to succeed. This would be particularly valuable in the context of the low international levels of basic skills in England.

Elaine Drayton, research economist at IFS and author of the research, said:

“Requiring students to pass GCSE maths and English in order to qualify for student loans would be a brutal tool to target undergraduate supply with poor job prospects. Although this would remove access to student loans for beginners in low-income courses like creative arts and communications, it would have a big impact on some high-yielding subjects like business and computer science, with 13% and 17% of entrants aged 18 to 19. affected, respectively. Other courses with low returns but considerable social value would also be affected, including social work and education.

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