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Are £7,500 fees (and funding cuts) back on the table again?

The rumour mill lines up behind government using finance to determine what people should be studying at university. As David Kernohan explains, it's always been a bad idea.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Do you remember the start of what we now know as the Augar review?

I ask because it was a while ago, and the politics have shifted a lot since then. When Theresa May stood up in front of that glass wall at Derby College in 2018, she was just coming out of what was widely seen as a disastrous election for the Conservative party.

To make sense of The Sunday Timesstory that fee cuts, income differences made up only for certain subjects, and a minimum entry tariff are back on the menu it is worth revisiting these halcyon times.

Derby days

The language of a “major review” saw both Jo Johnson and Justine Greening leave ministerial roles – both feared the distortion of what was then seen as an equitable and market-led system of university funding, set in place just the previous year by the Higher Education and Research Act. The Bill was passed in late April 2017, by 8 June the post-”youthquake” received opinion was that measures (and particularly the tuition fee and support package) were unattractive – and a large part of the unexpectedly good (if not stellar) performance Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party in the elections were down to a better “retail offer” for students.

So Augar came into being as a fatally flawed way to match the Labour promise of an end to tuition fees and a return of maintenance grants. It was flawed because the latter (arguably of much more salience to students) was largely ignored, and the former constrained to a set of economic ideas that a reevaluation of the way student loans were treated in the national accounts utterly pulverised.

Student number controls were explicitly out of bounds, as was any retreat from the logic of the graduate contribution. An attempt to increase repayment levels was thinly disguised as concern over applicants choosing subjects with low salary returns – LEO salary data was enjoying a brief moment in the sun at that point.

The Augar has landed

The “Post-18 Review of Fees and Funding” was an internal DfE review. It still, technically, is underway – January of this year saw merely an “interim conclusion”. The Report authored by Philip Augar and his panel was independent, but it was never the whole picture. When it finally emerged, late, in May 2019, the recommendations made assumptions (particularly around the cost of provision) that were, at best, arbitrary. The central plank of the higher education funding recommendations – the idea of £7,500 tuition fees – was reportedly disavowed by both the report’s author and the Secretary of State.

The report has been much more influential regarding the FE and Skills components of the post-18 offer – higher technical qualifications, expansions to apprenticeships, and the lifelong learning entitlement all made an appearance in Augar. There’s been no movement on the recommendations for the return of grants for some HE students.

Graduate expectations

Though the LEO dataset itself is not able to offer anything reliable on salary expectations by subject or provider, or on whether or not a given job is a “graduate” or “highly skilled” job these concepts have lived on in the debate on “low quality courses” (however impossible to define) and Gavin Williamson’s leaden assertion that:

“The record number of people taking up science and engineering demonstrates that many are already starting to pivot away from dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt.”

Understanding whether or not a job is a suitable destination for a graduate is by no means an easy task – descriptive statistics on employment involve very human judgements from both the employee in question and the person doing the coding. It is not for nothing that the most important debate in higher education right now concerns the way this is carried out for official statistics.

Williamson (BA (Hons) Social Studies, Bradford) may not be alive to the nuance of these processes. It is far easier for him to just rail at arts or media studies provision, or point to the low salaries enjoyed by graduates a year or so after graduation (which also, of course, mean low repayments). To be fair, DfE is getting into the weeds of job definition via a recent tender for a “skills taxonomy” – exactly the kind of thing the sector needs to be keeping an eye on.

The right students, the right courses

Thursday sees the publication of the next crop of LEO data – salary information by provider and subject for post-graduate courses for the 2018-19 tax year. We’ve already had national-level undergraduate data for what is the last pre-Covid tax year – the institutional level figures will likely follow in mid-June.

You know I love a visualisation – so here’s earnings by subject area in the creative arts for graduates qualifying in the 2017-18 academic year one year after graduation (in the 2018-19 tax year, to be exact). You can use the filters to look at other subjects/years, but there’s no provider names in this release.

[Full screen]

Sources close to Gavin Williamson suggest in The Sunday Times that some arts graduates earn “as little as £12,000 a year”. As you can see, I’ve gone one better and found 20 female printmaking graduates earning a median salary of £6,200 a year after graduation. Seeing a small group median like that makes the principal flaw of LEO clear – these graduates are almost certainly working part-time. It is so difficult to start a career in the arts that many talented young people support the occasional sale or gig (which quite often, at that part of their career, doesn’t pass through the tax system) with part-time work. And LEO does not discriminate between full and part time work.

Secondly, these are median values. Twenty-five per cent (of the 80 per cent of female printmaking graduates for this year – so like 4 of the 20 graduates in this pool, ignoring rounding for the moment) were earning more than £12,400 a year. The upper quartile is so much higher than the median that earnings may be substantially higher in a couple of cases – suggesting two of our talented young female printmakers had sadly given up on their dreams and gone for a “graduate job”.

Dead end street

So which of our female printmakers have hit a dead-end, a year after graduation? The four who aren’t working at all, who may be undertaking further study or making and selling art full time? The eight or so working part-time to support their art? Or the ones that have put their practice on hold (or given up entirely) to work in media sales because our society doesn’t seem to think it needs artists who can work, eat, and pay rent?

Should any of them not have done a degree? Without knowing each of them personally (or without substantial qualitative data) I wouldn’t be happy to say. Certainly what I’m looking at here (which is what someone has lost several hours in attempting to explain to the Secretary of State) doesn’t tell us. Do you need to be a graduate to make great prints? Possibly not, but I’d wager three years of expert tuition and sustained practice hasn’t hurt.

What do these numbers look like for 2019-20 or 2020-21? Much worse, I would imagine. This doesn’t mean that the graduates from these years will be worse, it means that a mid- and post-pandemic job market has veered from difficult to impossible. None of this is a basis to limit the options or funding available to support talented young people.

If the post-18 review started as a way to win the hearts and minds of students and those who have students (or potential students) in their lives, it has ended in a clumsy and misguided attempt to make subjects that people want to study in their thousands economically unviable to teach. Quite what, or who, this is “levelling up” is unclear.

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