Why grade-based student loans are a recipe for social exclusion

“It is reasonable to conclude that the government’s proposals for conditional loans deliberately discriminate against students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

alexander Birch is a freelance journalist who writes about issues of class, disability, gender and culture.

Last week, The Telegraph announced that the Ministry of Education plans to limit student loans to applicants who meet certain grade thresholds: No student loans for pupils who fail maths or English at GCSE. Another proposal being considered is to bar students who do not achieve a minimum EE at A level from accessing student loan funding. The editor of the journal Education wrote that the policy “would aim to limit the huge cost of universities to the taxpayer and crack down on shoddy degrees”.

Right-wing rhetoric about “Mickey Mouse degrees” is nothing new. Linking student loans to grades would be. Such a policy would explicitly tell students whose qualifications fall below a set threshold that they don’t deserve to go to college (unless, of course, their parents can foot the bill).

With high tuition fees making student loans a necessity for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, putting barriers to loans will inevitably hit them the hardest. Even if applicants from poor backgrounds had the same level of education as wealthier applicants, this would be the case. But they don’t. In this country, being born into a wealthy family has long been one of the biggest determinants of your future academic success.

There is plenty of evidence. Between 2009/10 and 2011/12 Oxford University reportedly accepted three times as many Eton College pupils as pupils receiving free school meals.

Forget Oxbridge: for students from the poorest backgrounds, even succeeding in English and maths is a feat. In 2020, only 49% of children eligible for free school meals achieved GCSE levels 9-4 in English and maths (roughly equivalent to A*-C), compared to 75% of pupils not eligible for free meals. Under conditions of poverty, even the brightest student can be outmatched by their relatively mediocre privately educated counterpart, which is why the best university research supports contextual admissions for disadvantaged university applicants.

All of this considered, it is reasonable to conclude that the government’s proposals for conditional loans deliberately discriminate against students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Prior learning is a surprisingly poor predictor of college success and cannot be used as a crude tool to exclude applicants who have experienced a disadvantage.

This is a deeply personal question for me, as a “non-traditional” university student. I received free school meals and took my GCSEs at a school that was in the country’s worst performing rankings.

When I applied to UCAS, I didn’t have a C in math. This was partly due to a kind of learned helplessness that I had developed in response to being taught that I lacked perspective. I was the child of a “profit collector” (in the words of one of my peers), so why bother?

Diane Reay’s book The bad education is filled with quotes from interviews with working-class students who express similar negative feelings about their own potential. Reading his work was a revelation. I thought I was ‘stupid’. I learned that I had been let down by a classist system in which poor children are systematically underestimated: stereotyped from an early age as “thick”, “lazy”, even criminals.

Against all odds, I graduated with first class honors from a Russell Group university. Much of the credit goes to my woefully underfunded college, which took a chance on me admitting me to an Access course. If there had been a policy in place in the mid-2010s that prohibited applicants without the required GCSE grades from getting student loans, I probably would have been turned away from university.

My path to higher education is virtually non-existent in the upper echelons of power, filled with men like our current Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, who attended a private school, like the majority of his predecessors. These politicians are deeply out of touch with the realities of education in this country. I suspect that’s why they can so easily feign concern for disadvantaged young people who are sold low-yielding degrees from lower-status institutions. Perhaps their detachment is what makes the outright exclusion of people who don’t pass the right higher education exams seem like a solution?

I have a few questions for politicians who support grade-dependent loans. Do you think the first-generation student who doesn’t get a graduate job after his old polytechnic degree gets that job because he wasn’t smart enough to go to college? Do you really believe, hand on heart, that the degrees they are studying for lack value on their own? Or is the real problem that working-class students largely go to working-class universities that are stigmatized accordingly by graduate employers? Could the problem be a rigid class system, rather than too many people entering higher education?

Higher education is a good in itself. But diplomas are also necessary to access many sectors. At a time of soaring inflation and stagnating social benefits, the government’s proposals threaten to grease Britain’s already slippery social mobility ladder.

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