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First thoughts on Augar: plenty to discuss, but we must protect opportunity and choice

Chris Hale

Chris Hale

Director of Policy
Universities UK

Theresa May’s long awaited review of post-18 education and funding has finally been published. It landed with a thud, coming in at over 200 pages, and there is much to digest. The full implications of what is being proposed will become clearer in the coming weeks, not least as further supporting evidence and analysis is made available. And of course, the big questions over if and how these recommendations could be implemented will ultimately rest on political decisions made by a new prime minister. 

This blog sets out some initial thoughts and reactions on the proposals, and assesses the extent to which the report addresses some of the key issues raised by universities during the course of the review. 

Firstly, the report’s joined-up approach to the tertiary system is to be welcomed.

Many reviews and reports that have gone before have only looked at parts of the system in isolation, so a comprehensive overview is refreshing, given the challenges the country faces on productivity, skills and the changing economy. The review’s focus on rebooting lifelong learning and the skills pipeline is particularly important: the emphasis on enhancing opportunities for re-entering education at levels 2 and 3, and addressing supply and meeting demand for qualifications at levels 4 and 5, is much needed. Further and higher education can both provide high-quality provision at levels 4 and 5, and the proposals to stimulate this present a real opportunity, and are good for social mobility. The challenge will be to ensure that as the number of better educated people at levels 2, 3, 4 and 5 grows, individuals are still able to progress through the system onto level 6 and beyond.

The proposal for increased flexibility in the system will also help to address the call by UUK and the CBI on the need to create more opportunities for flexible learning. There are good, ambitious proposals in the report, but implementing them will take some work – particularly the necessary credit system that would need to support a more flexible funding system, and demand patterns will need to be understood. We shouldn’t underestimate the scale of this challenge, and the fact that the government will need to work closely with the sector, regulators and others to make this happen.

The review scrutinises many of the issues that have dominated discussion about universities for the last few years, not least the cost of the system to students, universities and government. 

The most notable recommendation is, of course, the proposed cut to tuition fees, to £7,500 per year, with the overall per student unit of funding protected in cash terms. The rationale is for no student to pay more than the reasonable cost of their course, and ensure better targeting of taxpayer investment. These may be legitimate political questions for the panel to address, but the key issues for universities will be whether the proposed funding gap is made up by government in full, and how this is allocated. If it isn’t made up in full the damage to the sector would be significant. Quality and the student experience would be undermined, and it would damage the overall ambition set out by the Augar panel to bolster our post-18 funding system. 

Put simply, this cut to the fee should not be made if there is no cast iron guarantee to replace the funding. The ambitions of the report can’t be achieved on the cheap.

The other risk with the proposed funding changes is that increased direct government support comes with more strings attached. Some may say that is legitimate and I wouldn’t argue against accountability, but centrally-controlled higher education systems perform less well, are less responsive to changing economic needs, and are less likely to innovate. A critical test for these proposals will be the extent to which they undermine the autonomy of our higher education sector.

In our contribution to the panel we were particularly concerned that the overall system should be progressive and support social mobility. The current system is not perfect, but as acknowledged in the report it is progressive and has been good for access and participation. In 2017, 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas in England were 82% more likely to enter higher education than in 2006. On the plus side, the proposals for the reintroduction of means-tested maintenance grants for students will help those with concerns about living costs. This is something UUK has called for.

It is also important that the review moved away from introducing minimum entry requirements for entry to higher education. This would have damaged opportunity for those could benefit from higher education despite lower prior attainment, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The report does still challenge the sector to act on courses with poor retention, poor graduate employability, and poor long-term earnings. This is not a straight forward set of issues, but time to engage, better understand the issues that have been raised and discuss how the sector can address the challenges presented is helpful.

As pointed out by Martin Lewis and others, there are some less progressive elements among the proposals. 

This includes the extension of the loan write off from 30 to 40 years which, together with a cut to the headline fee and lower interest rates while studying, will benefit higher earners who will end up paying less than they currently do. Cutting fees doesn’t necessarily mean all graduates will have more money in their pockets or end up paying less for their courses in the long term: the government’s own analysis shows that average earners will in fact pay more – £12,000 more over their lifetime than under the current system.

There are inevitably trade-offs in such a complex system, and this is no doubt an attempt by the panel to introduce welcome changes such as maintenance grants, while keeping an eye on overall costs (for the higher education proposals our initial analysis suggests overall a cost neutral package). That said, the implications still need to be fully scrutinised and discussed, including with the higher education sector in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and their devolved administrations. The UK’s higher education system currently enables students from all four nations to freely study in any part of the UK. The review, although England-focused, risks disrupting cross-border flows and may result in unintended consequences for student choice across all four nations of the UK.

This last point brings me to the need for meaningful public and stakeholder discussion on these proposals. Altogether, they could provide a strong basis for a coherent and well-evidenced set of changes, but political cherry picking is a real risk, particularly with the price tag attached. As a sector we want to continue engaging over how we can meet the overall ambitions set out in the report, while protecting opportunity and choice for learners across the UK.

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Robin Ball
Robin Ball says:
30 May 2019 at 22:44

If you accept the review recommendation 3.3  that the HE fee cut be balanced at sector level by more T grant (with some emphasis on high cost subjects), then you are conceding that humanities heavy institutions can bear net funding cuts.  I am not saying you are wrong, but conceding that some universities are overfunded does open Pandora's box.

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