Universities are exploiting the disadvantaged



As if there weren’t enough dire news stories about universities already, this week it was revealed that Russell Group universities are accepting applicants with grades as low as CCD. The policy is aimed at attracting disadvantaged students, meaning those who have gone to a below average school, been in care or grown up in a deprived area will now have these factors taken into account by institutions. The catch is that they will have to complete a foundation year, tacked onto their course, in order to get to the same level as classmates. Leeds University already has six such degrees on offer, including Business Studies, for which students need merely a CCC.

This is a terrible idea, not least because it shackles some of the poorest children in the country with tens of thousands of pounds of debt. But it’s not the universities’ fault this has gone ahead, as the Office for Students (OfS) has put immense financial pressure on them to recruit disadvantaged kids. It has warned institutions that it’ll stop them from charging the highest level of tuition fees if they do not demonstrate plans to attract this demographic. Universities initially hoped that bursaries would do the trick, but it has been found that lowering grade entries was the most successful route.

From almost every perspective lowering entrance grades seems to me an unhealthy step for society. For one, it is uninspiring to disadvantaged teenagers to claim that uncontrollable factors, such as the town you live in, can be responsible for mediocre grades. Of course, life circumstances can have a bearing on a child’s performance, but that doesn’t make them deterministic. Many children succeed with the odds against them and need messages of empowerment. The foundation year is equally dispiriting, as kids know they have the back-up if their A Levels are substandard, and may take their foot off the pedal.

The next big question is whether it’s ultimately the job of universities to prepare students for higher education. The implementation of foundation years may ask too much of overstretched lecturers, who expect those who come into their seminars to be independent and ready for a challenging curriculum. If our education system is so unequal, inequalities should be remedied as soon as possible – in schools – not when a person is as old as 18. It’s awful for reforms to take place at the university stage.

And that’s before we get to the impact on the whole of the UK, which loses its appeal on the world stage when we start accepting poor grades. Anyone who’s seen videos of Chinese children learning maths in classrooms will know that the only way education requirements in this country should be going is up, not down, or else we harm our reputation. UK education is already having something of a PR crisis after it was found that universities had been artificially inflating degrees. Britain has always prided itself on the quality of its academic institutions, and we should not throw that all away with ill-thought out ideas and woke policies.

By far the biggest travesty of this policy, though, is that it will not increase social mobility, for two reasons. For one, the extra foundation year means someone’s got to pick up the bill. Sometimes that’ll be universities, which have their own funds to draw upon, but in other cases disadvantaged students will have to cover the cost themselves. Is it moral to take additional thousands of pounds from a group universities are ostensibly trying to economically mobilise? Let’s be honest: no.

The second problem is that lowering grades means more students will go to university, which, ironically, Britain could do with less of. That’s because the employment market currently has a surplus of graduates, with many having to go into non-graduate roles that pay badly, so we actually need to cut the supply. With student debt increasing over the years, university is far from the financial emancipator it is portrayed as. Troublingly, some disadvantaged students may end up worse off when they go to further education than before. 

With shocking figures showing that the UK is expected to owe £8.6bn in student loan interest alone within five years, it’s clear that higher education is having the opposite effect to the one intended: to spur our nation and its youth. For lots of whippersnappers – disadvantaged, advantaged or in between – the most benevolent thing the government could tell them over universities is simply “don’t go”.

Charlotte Gill is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in The Mail on Sunday, The Times and The Telegraph. Follow her on twitter: @CharlotteCGill