Opinion | Minimum GCSE requirements for University…is this what the Government calls ‘Levelling up?’

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By James Fishwick, History, Third Year

I want to start this off with a question, are you the same person you were when you sat your GCSEs? Either academically, socially, in terms of maturity or career aspiration?

Boris Johnson wants to champion social mobility and opportunity through his proposed ‘levelling up’ agenda. His plan to limit entry into higher education institutions based on minimum GCSE requirements does exactly the opposite.

Vice-Chancellors ‘believe’ that the Government is planning to introduce minimum GCSE requirements in order to access student finance. Without access to the loan, annual direct payments of £9,250 would be required to attend university, meaning this condition is effectively imposing minimum GCSE requirements on university itself.

This seems to be a response to concerns that not enough people are repaying their tuition fees, with over £140 billion in unpaid loans. Tougher entry requirements would mean fewer students and less debt.

A fix to this, of course, could simply be to recognise education as a human right and to abolish tuition fees, erasing student debt.

But instead, the Conservative Government - champions of ‘levelling up’ - are erecting barriers to opportunity rather than removing them.

It is a policy that denies students access to education

How can young people, and those wanting to be educated later in life, ‘level up’ when they cannot access Higher Education?

This policy would also deny access to Higher Education for nearly half of all disadvantaged pupils.

This is because these students do not always have the support at school, in their family lives, or in social settings to be able to reach their potential at GCSE age. But, many go on to improve vastly at level 3 qualifications such as A-Level, BTECs and so on, denying worthy candidates of an education solely because of their social background.

It is a policy that denies students access to an education, and one that reaffirms Higher Education and academia’s reputation of elitism. Looking at their track record, it is no shock that the Conservatives are contemplating this policy.

For example, they have already considered lowering tuition fees, but requiring that they are paid back over a longer time. This is a policy which would have benefitted financially privileged students who would be able to pay back fees more quickly and thus face lower interest payments.

They are also pursuing plans to slash funding to arts and humanities subjects in favour of STEM courses, continuing an elitist hierarchy within one of the least diverse sectors of academia.

'Levelling up' seems to mean 'limiting access'

Last but by no means least, disgraced Education Secretary Gavin Williamson floated the idea of scrapping the 50 per cent goal of young people attending university without reforming other career routes in order to make them more attractive.

What Conservatives call ‘Levelling Up’ seems to mean ‘limiting access’ in common English. If the Government really wanted to make change within the Higher Education sector they would make it fully funded, and free at the point of access, from cradle to grave.

This would end the marketisation of Higher Education that currently sees universities run as businesses and students and staff deprived of their rights.

So, here are some policies to think about what could increase access to education without limiting opportunity:

-       The Government could decide to overhaul apprenticeships in terms of pay, working conditions and technical education. Currently, apprenticeship wages start at £4.30, lower than the national minimum wage. If wages for apprenticeships were increased we would see greater competition for these positions, pushing employers to offer more of these schemes.

-       The admissions system currently benefits students from privileged backgrounds who, compared to their dis-advantaged peers, receive over inflated predicted grades. The admissions system should be conducted after results day, so that universities can make an assessment of what a student actually has achieved and not just what they are expected to.

-       A mass expansion of contextual offers would contribute massively to ‘Levelling Up’  and would expand access to Higher Education to many thousands of students a year.

It is dis-heartening to see a Government consider an education policy that would limit the opportunity and life chances of students from dis-advantaged backgrounds.

For students who go to the state comprehensives of the UK and who already study within an underfunded and barren education system, this is yet another kick in the teeth and one more way in which the most privileged in our society can uphold and entrench their privilege.

Featured image: Unsplash | Anoushka P


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