New minimum entry requirements for student loans would disproportionately impact pupils from poorer backgrounds and ethnic minorities, new analysis has found.
Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that Government proposals for loan access to be limited to pupils who have gained passes in GCSE English and maths, or 2 E grades at A level finds that a quarter of poorer students would not have been able to access loans as a result of the changes.
Drawing on data from GCSE cohorts in 2011 and 2012, the IFS found that one in four students eligible for free school meals would have been unable to secure a loan under the proposals, compared with 9% of those not eligible for FSM and 5% of private school pupils.
The proposed GCSE minimum entry requirements, currently under consultation, would also have had a much greater impact on candidates from Black, British Pakistani or British Bangladeshi backgrounds.
It found that around 7% of white British undergraduates from state schools would have been impacted by the requirements, and around 10% of Chinese and Indian students, whereas nearly one in five (18%) Bangladeshi and Pakistani students would have been impacted, and nearly one in four (23%) black students would have been unable to access loans.
The IFS said that this reflected the fact that ethnic minority pupils from these groups were more likely to attend university than their white peers despite similar attainment at GCSE.
The research found that a minimum entry requirement of 2 E grades at A level, as opposed to GCSE English and maths passes, would have less of a disproportionate impact on poorer pupils and ethnic minority students.
“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,” the IFS said.
“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.”
The research found that students who did not achieve these minimum qualifications had worse degree outcomes than their higher-attaining peers, but that nearly 80% graduated, with around 40% attaining a First or 2.1 degree.
The research found that the GCSE requirements 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,” the IFS said.
Laura van der Erve, senior research economist at the 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.”
She said that it would be better to give extra support to make sure all pupils left school with basic levels of literacy and numeracy.
“This would be particularly valuable in the context of England’s internationally low levels of basic skills,” she added.
Elaine Drayton, research economist at the 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.”
University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said: “This research provides yet more evidence that imposing student loan eligibility criteria would be an attack on the working class, with ministers attempting to slam the gate shut on those it deems unworthy of entering higher education.
“Students from well off backgrounds will still be able to get their education funded by their family, so will not be impacted by arbitrary restrictions for access to loans.”
“Instead, the changes would limit access to higher education for those from less well-off backgrounds and widen society’s dividing lines. If enacted they would make a mockery of the government’s proclaimed commitment to levelling up.”
A Department for Education spokesman 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 on to 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.”