At fifteen years old, on the night of my first GCSE examination, I didn’t sleep. Instead of staying well-nourished, well-rested and taking a walk, I was overtaken by immense levels of stress and a fear of failure. These levels of stress followed me throughout my exams from Year 10 to Year 13 where I succeeded in gaining a place at university. The gift of hindsight tells me that Religious Education Paper 1 wasn’t going to fundamentally affect my future, but the Conservatives wish that it could.
Proposals from the Department of Education seek to implement minimum grade requirements for student loans in England. Under the plans, which come amidst a wider debate of the value of university degrees, failure in GCSE Maths, England, or two A-Levels would disqualify any potential for a student loan.
Outwardly, the intentions behind this are framed as tackling low-value university degrees leading to poor employment opportunities. According to the Government, reducing access to university places will prevent students from being ‘pushed’ into higher education, result in higher-quality degrees and, most importantly for the Conservatives, decrease the economic impacts of student loans.
The impacts of these decisions, if implemented, will be two-fold. Firstly, the socio-economic dimension, which has been the most prominent aspect highlighted in the media, is evident. Within disadvantaged households, only 52% achieve grade 4 or above in GCSE Maths and English, while around 90% of private school pupils will pass the same subjects. At the most simplistic level, reduction of eligibility for loans will not predominantly impact individuals who are not the best fit for universities.
It should be obvious that university is not the correct path for everyone to take. Recent years have seen increasing concern about ‘mickey mouse’ degrees, a buzzword term that denotes degrees that provide no meaningful career prospects. Leaving the problematic nature of such sweeping terms aside, there is no doubt that there is a general concern that rising prices, online learning, and frequent strikes are leaving UK University education worthless next to the £9,250 a year price tag. For those who don’t enjoy essay writing, or simply have talents outside of academics, there is no reason to attend University.
However, while the Government believes these restrictions will discourage non-academic students away from university, it will instead perpetuate the pay-for-a-place system which is pervasive in the United Kingdom. At the first level, those in private education are more likely to pass at GCSE and A-Level through a combination of smaller class sizes, greater resources, and less exhausted teachers. This is similar for those in selective state schools, who face less classroom disruption and better exam preparation.
Furthering this, if selective education is not enough tutoring is a common addition with many estimates stating around a quarter of secondary school pupils have a private tutor. While this of course is not exclusive to selective school pupils, there is a correlation between wealthier homes and employment of private tutors. This exemplifies how students from disadvantaged backgrounds will have a decreased opportunity to pass exams when compared to their counterparts.
For those where tutoring fails, it will still be an option for many to self-fund, a price which comes to £27,750 for your average three-year undergraduate degree. While this is admittedly a smaller proportion of students, it still successfully demonstrates how, for higher-income families, there are few boundaries that will prevent their children from going to university if it is what they desire, even if the Government would see them as a better fit for immediate employment.
For those without selective schools, private tutors, and thirty grand, not passing GCSEs could immediately close all avenues for university education. Two young people who achieved the same at sixteen years old, both have the ambition to go to university, and want to study the same course could both have different futures, as one is able to fund their education while the other is restricted by discriminatory policies.
Furthermore, students in England already face significantly greater financial costs to attending university compared to other nations in the UK. For those in Wales, a £1,000 grant is provided for all full-time undergraduates which are topped up with a loan. They can also potentially benefit from a partial cancellation of up to £1,500 when they begin to repay their maintenance loan. Similarly in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the maintenance allowance is topped up with non-repayable grants based on household income. The Government’s new policy will merely continue to move education out of reach for young people in England, while their peers are able to access university at discounted rates.
I agree there is merit in being concerned about universities seeking to bring in as many students as possible, however, I am diametrically opposed to solving this issue through reversing the progress in representation and accessibility that universities have made movements towards. Without adequate student loan funding, which in its current state is already questionable, the only people who will be isolated from further education is low income, under-represented demographics who are already being driven away from universities.
Moving away from the most salient argument based on the social effects of the choice, there is also a secondary dimension to these new policies. In the UK, 1/5 of 16- to 19-year-olds rated their anxiety levels as high in 2019 to 2020. Additionally, 50% of mental health problems are established by 14, and 75% by 24. Some children are waiting up to two years for treatment from the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS). As a nation, we are failing to deal with the levels of depression and stress being experienced by our young people.
My experience throughout GCSE was one marred by stress and anxiety at levels I did not know how to cope with. Between myself and my peers, we experienced tears both inside and outside of the exam hall and hellish periods without sleep before both our GCSE and A-Level results days. Already our examination process puts immense amounts of stress on young people, and now we want to increase this stress at a younger age and penalise those who struggle in the first formal exams they have ever experienced.
The proposals of the government are utterly focused on reducing the economic impacts on the well-being and prospects of young people. This is symptomatic of the party in power being electorally served by older generations who, after benefiting from many social welfare programmes and benefits, are happy, or at the very least apathetic, about them being taken away for the next generation.
For those pleased with these plans, they must also find the moral grounding to accept that reduced university loans will not only increase the mental health issues faced by young people but also snatch higher education from entire groups before they have even hit adulthood. We simply cannot claim to be a country that stands for freedom and opportunity while accepting the reversal of anti-elitism in our universities. Already our teenagers face immense levels of stress about their futures, and all the government’s new plans will do is compound the lack of social mobility and prevalence of mental health disorders already found in the UK.