However, when parliamentarians and educational experts judge the panel's recommendations it must be on the basis of what is most likely to enable Britain to thrive, not on political ideology or electoral expedience. With Brexit mere weeks away, and our collective economic future uncertain, the country simply cannot afford to risk damaging universities, our most reliable source of innovation, skills and global connections.
When the Prime Minister launched the Augar review of post-18 education and funding she hailed universities as "world leaders and the jewels in Britain's crown." Universities underpin Britain's global soft power and influence and set the global educational standard. At the same time they play an anchoring role in local communities up and down the country as employers, engines of economic growth and hubs of civic engagement.
I believe that we can reasonably apply five tests in judging whether the Augar recommendations will make real improvements to life in Britain.
Our higher education system in England, in which there are no arbitrary limits on student numbers and no fee payment up front, has generated real progress on narrowing the gap in participation between the most disadvantaged and the least. We are seeing record highs in the percentage of young people applying to university from the most disadvantaged areas.
From 2021 the number of eighteen-year-olds in the general population is set to increase rapidly. Those young people have the right to be assured that they will be afforded every opportunity to achieve their ambitions. And older people seeking the opportunity to return to education have the same right.
We can and should be more ambitious on widening participation. No student should be deterred from realising the opportunity to change their life by fear of not having enough money to meet their daily living costs. We can certainly do more to create flexible pathways to higher-level skills for students whose life doesn't fit with the traditional model. But our guiding principle should be to expand opportunity, not constrain it.
Graduate job vacancies are forecast to increase. By 2024 almost half of all jobs will require workers to have completed some form of higher-level education, according to the CBI. The graduate unemployment rate is at a forty-year low; it's clear we need more students successfully progressing through further and higher education. With the onset of automation, artificial intelligence and digital technologies public and private sectors alike need more professionals with the skills to adapt and harness new technologies and collaborate across sectoral and geographical boundaries. This review is a golden opportunity to meet rising employer demand.
There are clear benefits in further expanding the number of university graduates. Graduates make vital contributions to everyone's lives – providing nursing and social care, championing social change through charities and as leaders in culture and the arts.
Our competitors are investing in universities and increasing the number of graduates. Britain needs to rise to this challenge and support more of the population through higher-level study.
Students at British universities know they can expect not only in-depth subject knowledge, but a considerable degree of co- and extra-curricular provision, one-to-one academic support when they need it, online learning resources, and engagement in current research, all underpinned by a robust system of regulation. British students benefit from systems of student representation. Their feedback is solicited and acted upon. A student who is dissatisfied has the right to refer their case to independent adjudication, at no cost.
All of this is distinctive. It is the reason that international students flock to the UK. It should not be taken for granted, and it costs money to sustain.
Further education has suffered damaging cuts, and will need real investment to ensure students who choose this route have access to high-quality courses. In England, tuition fees replaced public funding to universities for teaching and capital investment in their estates, and the fee level has not kept pace with inflation. Cutting the fee level, without a commitment to make up the shortfall with public funding, will see bigger class sizes, poorer facilities, and less advice, support and choice for students.
Universities currently generate a knock-on impact of nearly £100bn for the UK economy and support almost a million jobs throughout the UK.
Any MP knows intimately how their local university is woven through the fabric of civic life, contributing to health, sport, culture, charitable endeavour and local economic growth. Much of this activity is not formally funded; universities do it because it matters and because they have a responsibility to their local community.
In areas where traditional industries have declined the university is always at the heart of regeneration efforts, providing the research, innovation and skills to stimulate business growth and attract external investment.
It goes without saying that if the proposals reduce the ability of universities and colleges to engage with their communities their impact will be less, and Britain will be the poorer for it.
Our current system is shaped by students' choices by design. To suggest that a civil servant in Whitehall knows better than a prospective student what sort of course they should study and where, is clearly nonsense.
Certainly we could improve the information, advice and guidance available to students to ensure that as many students as possible choose the course and institution that is most likely to help them reach their goals.
The funding system needs to be clear and simple to promote access and ensure students understand the financial support available. It needs to be communicated straightforwardly and unambiguously to prospective students, their parents and to taxpayers. But fundamentally we should respect and support students' choices – as it is they who will have to live with the consequences.
Passing these tests will mean that the review panel has succeeded in putting forward recommendations that will enable our post-eighteen education system to sustain and grow its positive impact on individuals, the economy and the whole of British society. And incidentally, putting the next Prime Minister in the position to say as confidently as Theresa May has done that UK universities are world-leaders and the jewel in Britain's crown.
#1. Right to higher education I disagree. - There is no universal "right" to HE; I do agree that it is, however, in a society's best interest to provide a certain number of their best with R&D facilities to improve society & the lives of its citizens (whether from improvements in health, technology, business, etc).Providing "Mass HE" to a large number of the population (presently 50% of youth in the UK) unfortunately creates mediocre institutions, providing mediocre & sub-standard "degree" education to many young people, who end up unsuitable for traditional 'graduate level' jobs, and at a high financial cost to the tax-payer. In particular; the spend on HE vs Higher Tech/Admin education is patently too high when the modern UK is so poorly provided with higher technical and admin workers - and the system that could provide them is so badly resourced. This is the opposite to Germany - who recognises that, as a modern industrial nation, higher technical / admin is more deserving of funding; as it is the education tier requiring "massification". In comparison German HE is funded to provide the academic elite with the R&D resources society needs.#2 addressing UK skills gapsSee above on right-sizing funding for Higher Tech vs Higher Ed#3 sustain quality of post edSo-called "degrees" that are just worthless paper serve no one - especially the poor kids who have been duped into wasting 3 years of their lives, and 50k, to graduate with no meaningful employment or life skills. Many of these kids should have qualified in the trades - and by now would be serving society and earning a good living for themselves.#4 & 5 - Quality of life in communities and career path choicesBoth of these 'tests' are answered above - the UK needs useful and contented young people; not useless and disgruntled sub-par "graduates"