Government plans will lock disadvantaged pupils out of higher education

An empty classroom

On 23 February, the government announced plans to ban pupils who fail their maths and English GCSEs from taking out student loans. The proposal marks another move toward making higher education even more marketised and inaccessible.

A racist, classist, ablest proposal

Experts have warned that these plans will hit the most disadvantaged pupils hardest, effectively locking them out of higher education altogether.

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter told the Guardian:

If this is implemented crudely it will effectively be closing off university prospects at age three for many poorer children. Our research shows the depressingly strong link between achieving poorly in early-age tests and failing to get passes in English and maths GCSEs at age 16.

He added:

Children from the lowest fifth of family income backgrounds are five times more likely to leave school without passes in English and maths GCSEs basic skills than those from the highest fifth of incomes,” he added. “We already label a third of pupils taking English and maths GCSEs as failures – this will only condemn them further.

Others have highlighted that these plans will hurt disabled and other marginalised pupils, making a mockery of widening participation efforts.

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Responding to the announcement, Northern Lights founder and Disability Union columnist Rachel Curtis said:

Highlighting the way in which this would exacerbate entrenched inequality, Wolverhampton education professor Damien Page shared:

Art historian Dr Bendor Grosvenor added:

In its response to the Augar review of post-18 higher education funding, the government also set out plans to make those who start university in 2022 pay back their student loans in full over the course of 40 years instead of 30.

Among other recommendations, the review urged the government to introduce more support for disadvantaged students and to increase access to higher education for all. But if implemented, the government’s plans will likely have the opposite effect.

What about other subjects?

The government’s prioritisation of maths and English reflects its ongoing battle against the arts in education. In 2021, education secretary Gavin Williamson announced plans for huge cuts to higher education funding for arts subjects such as art, drama and music.

Speaking to the marginalisation of subjects beyond maths and English, one Twitter user shared:

Journalist Louis Staples added:

People share their experiences

People soon took to Twitter to explain the myriad of reasons why a pupil may fail their GCSEs, including poverty, homelessness and abuse.

Joanne Phillips, a writer and survivor of trafficking shared:

Another Twitter user posted:

Ian Muirhead is now a space scientist, but he didn’t pass his GCSEs. He commented:

And Birkbeck criminology lecturer Aviah Sarah Day shared:

An education system in crisis

The government’s plan comes in the midst of nation-wide University and College Union (UCU) industrial action over poor pay and conditions.

University staff across the country are engaged in action short of a strike (ASOS) as well as a series of strikes against race, gender and disability pay gaps; increased casualisation and precarity; increasing workloads and real-terms pay and pension cuts.

Meanwhile, National Education Union (NEU) members are on strike over attempts to cut teachers’ pensions.

Reflecting on the country’s “broken education system”, National Union for Students (NUS) president Larissa Kennedy shared:

Stating that the government’s plans to lock marginalised and disadvantaged young people out of higher education will effectively create an “underclass” with no opportunities, Harley Shah tweeted:

The government’s proposed plan will hit those most in need of financial support the hardest, creating further barriers to the UK’s increasingly elitist, inaccessible and marketised universities.

Featured image via Ivan Aleksic/Unsplash

Get involved

There are a number of ways people can get involved in the ongoing fight to defend the UK’s education system.

UCU members at 63 institutions plan three days of strike action from 28 February. Supporters are invited to express solidarity at picket lines, and to tweet their support using the hashtag #UCUstrike. People can also donate to UCU’s fund to help members involved in disputes and cover strike pay.

Meanwhile, NUS is calling on students across the nation to take part in a ‘walk out/teach in‘ to demand an education system that works for everyone on 2 March. The interactive day will include speeches, workshops and performances. See you on the picket line!

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