Prominent figures with dyslexia have accused ministers of erecting more barriers for people with the condition, after proposals that would prevent anyone failing maths and English at GCSEs from getting higher education loans in England.
The plan to link student loan eligibility to GCSE results was revealed last week as part of sweeping college access reforms. There were immediate fears the measures would have a disproportionate impact on poorer students when they were unveiled alongside new rules on how loans and fees will be repaid.
Charities and dyslexia advocates fear the measure could have a serious impact on the life chances of students with the disease. Benjamin Zephaniah, the writer and poet who is a professor of creative writing at Brunel University, told the Observer that his struggles with dyslexia showed that the government should find a “more open-minded and accessible” approach to student loan eligibility.
“I’m a professor at Brunel University and oversee a whole creative writing department,” he said. “I tend to start my term by looking at my students and saying, ‘On paper, you’re all more educated than me.’ I had a completely different life path from all my students. It was partly luck, but above all it was a passion for a language in which I was dyslexic.
“At school, I was a failure. Now they study my books to take exams. We need to be a little more creative and open-minded in how we bring students to university. I’m a big fan of apprenticeships. But in many cases, you can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. Not everyone should go to university, but not everyone who fails the GCSE should go to university.
Theo Paphitis, the retail entrepreneur who featured on the BBC show The dragon’s lair and is chancellor of Solent University in Southampton, said the idea was “frankly ridiculous”. Paphitis, who also has dyslexia, said: “Taking people with dyslexia as an example, they might not pass their exams on the day – I know they don’t – and that immediately, and unfairly , puts them at a difficult financial disadvantage for their comrades.
“Everyone should have the opportunity to discover what they are passionate about, and in some cases going to college is one of the best ways to do that. The world is changing rapidly and it is time for the UK education system to catch up and remove the barriers, rather than putting more in for those who may not already be on equal footing with others. Education is not a one-way street – there are different paths for everyone. To discriminate against being given a loan, which must be repaid, and potentially harming the future of a student with special needs, such as dyslexia, in this world today is beyond the imagination of anyone with knowledge of education and skills for the future.”
Gillian Ashley, chief executive of the British Dyslexia Association, said: “Creating a blanket rule with fixed grades required to enter university discriminates against people with dyslexia. This excludes strengths they might demonstrate through other forms of assessment.
The Helen Arkell Dyslexia Charity said the government’s proposal was ‘ill-conceived and in conflict with its intention to level society. This proposal fails to take into account the needs of neurodivergent students, such as those with dyslexia, many of whom have strong oral communication skills but struggle to convey their knowledge and understanding in writing.
The consultation on minimum requirements for loans comes with ministers trying to control higher education costs. Around 71% of pupils in England get a Year 4 in English and GCSE maths, falling to 52% among disadvantaged households.
It is part of the government’s belated response to the Augar review of education and funding after 18 years in England, ordered by former Prime Minister Theresa May. At the same time, changes to the loan repayment period mean that, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, high-income borrowers “should benefit significantly”. Graduates with lower average incomes would experience the greatest proportional loss.
The Department for Education said the minimum education requirements for a student loan were part of a consultation and there could be exemptions to the rules for certain types of students.