Augar shifts the puzzle pieces around but does it deliver for students?

If reading hundreds of papers for university committee meetings this year has prepared me for anything, it’s the release of the long-awaited, 219 page-strong Augar Review.

I’ve not read (at least not in full) many full higher education policy reports in my lifetime, and though this one struck me as pretty clear and thoughtful, its initially positive recommendations give way to a slew of questions about timescale, implementation and implications for students, unions and their universities. So, what are the themes emerging?

Off the market

After a welcome acknowledgement that the intentional marketization of higher education hasn’t exactly worked, recommendations seem to be taking us back in time a few years: reduced overall student debt for home undergraduate students via a headline drop in fees to £7,500 and the reintroduction of maintenance grants for lower socio-economic backgrounds. But let’s look in depth at a few of these apparent wins.

Universities’ collective stomach-drop at the headline £7,500 fee reduction is remedied somewhat by the accompanying recommendation to replace the lost fee income by teaching grants – and that these would increase for subjects that have a higher delivery cost.

However, as we know, tuition fees fund more than just teaching – indeed Augar highlights how UK institutions spend higher proportions of fees on non-teaching activities. It is possible institutions that deliver lower-cost courses will see a reduction in the money they have to spend on aspects such as estates, IT, mental health provision and even extra-curricular activities.

What is perceived by Augar as inefficient ‘over-funding’ could just the funds needed to deliver the course alongside essential non-teaching aspects required to support students. We only have to look at mental health provision as an example to see this funding already doesn’t go far enough. And remember if this is implemented, it will come after 3 years of frozen £9250 fees too.

Frantic gap plugging

Working with university staff and senior management daily, I know all too well that any loss in funding anywhere causes a frantic search across the institution to find ways to plug the gap. And more often than not, that sticking plaster comes by moving yet more costs onto students. Prices on campus increase, rent is hiked and additional course costs creep up. With no barrier for institutions to increase international undergraduate fees, the overseas cross-subsidy practice is likely to become more frequent. But Brexit will already make international recruitment more difficult, so institutions also choosing to increase their overseas fees might need to think twice before doing themselves more financial harm than good.

Also recommended by Augar is that the topping up of the teaching grant should reflect a subject’s “reasonable costs and its social and economic value to students and taxpayers”. We know that the sector and indeed society likes to look at the economic value of subjects. But whose role is it to evaluate the social value of a subject? If you ask our policy makers and politicians the social value of a ‘low-cost’ degree, you’ll get a very different answer than if you asked writers, journalists and performers. How do you compare the social value of degree undertaken by an investment banker against the author of the next Mann Booker prize winner? The social value will always take a backseat in today’s society.

Sighing the seeds

The report’s recommendations on supporting disadvantaged students read initially like a sigh of relief. Thanks to relentless lobbying from NUS and SUs, we see a recommendation to reintroduce maintenance grants of at least £3000 per year for disadvantaged students. And a number of recommendations explicitly make reference to increased funding for institutions with high proportions of disadvantaged students, presumably to increase retention and attainment by providing better on-course support.

However, whilst it makes some sense to concentrate funds toward institutions with high proportions of Widening Participation students, this also means that institutions such as Bath who have poor WP records will receive less funding for their own access work. In the long run this could see ‘WP’ students concentrated at particular – perhaps less prestigious institutions – rather than all disadvantaged students being able to access all institutions regardless of league table ranking. This would be a consequence we would do well to avoid.

Nothing going on but the ‘rents

Then there’s the vague reference to acknowledging parental contribution within the student loan system. I wonder if it’s too optimistic to presume that this will effectively support those ‘middle band’ students who fall through the gap of the current system. On the one hand, it seems ludicrous that this could mean the loans system could ‘expect’ a parental contribution per student, but the option for students to factor in a declared parental contribution at point of student finance application seems equally optimistic. And again whilst the headline writers took the bait, did anybody else notice that the report suggests the overall maintenance amount available to students will actually decrease? Hmm.

Overall, whilst balanced and evidence-based in approaching the funding issues in the HE sector, this hefty report’s recommendations raise more questions than they provide assurances for institutions and students who are both bearing the brunt of a heavily marketised system. The report does a good job of addressing the question of “why?” higher education exists and what its purpose is, but it’s not clear that the proposals sufficiently flow from that purpose and remedy the funding problems. The danger is that we are merely shuffling the puzzle pieces about in a jigsaw that wasn’t a particularly pretty picture in the first place.

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