The Augar report is a disappointment. It contains many sensible reforms – some quite radical, such as new entitlements to free level two and three learning, increasing teaching grants to allow fees to be reduced, and replacing loans for studying qualifications with loans for studying module-by-module. But the report is technocratic rather than visionary.
Augar navigates awkwardly between the pros and cons of planning or market forces as the drivers of tertiary education. In fact, I get the impression the authors would have liked to have gone further with reintroducing more planning. They point out that some of the most problematic features of how universities behave are a product of marketisation, and make recommendations for rejuvenating further education colleges that amount to national planning of the sector. Why not the same planning paradigm for higher education? The answer would appear to be that sticking with the market conveniently allows Augar to claim that academic autonomy has been protected despite an agenda of major change and austerity.
Cuts and more cuts
There is no mention in the report that universities have seen the home fee cap eroded by over 13 per cent since the last major fee rise in 2012, causing many institutions to shed jobs as staff costs outpace fee income. Rather than address this, Augar thinks the sector can take more and recommends an additional cut of 11 per cent to 2022/23, after which increases should be in line with inflation. By then, however, the report’s recommended full-time fee cap of £7,500 could be in place. While STEM subjects might receive protection from this further cut with additional teaching grant, most subjects would not. Indeed, these subjects could see even deeper cuts because Augar recommends that only courses kite-marked by employers as “valuable” to their skills needs should be able to charge fees at the maximum fee cap and receive teaching grant.
Giving with one hand and taking away with the other
The cut to the fee cap delivers the headline that no doubt Theresa May was hoping for; some kind of legacy at least. But most students don’t benefit. Augar manages both to cut HE’s funding and to increase what graduates will pay for their more poorly resourced courses. While graduates on £40,000 a year would see their monthly repayments increase by just 13 per cent, those earning £27,000 p.a. would see their repayments double. Overall, the highest earners come out of the recommendations paying less.
Another politically helpful headline is the reintroduction of maintenance grants for students from the poorest families. While this is good news, the many international comparisons in the report ignore one peculiar feature of UK higher education, which is the extent to which students relocate to attend university. In a mass higher education system, this puts huge pressure on maintenance support. The main beneficiaries of maintenance loans and grants are student landlords. Encouraging more students to stay at home and study locally – the model that Augar endorses for further education students – would enable maintenance support to be focused on what really makes a difference to students’ welfare and study. This is not considered at all.
It’s further education versus higher education now
The tone of the report follows the OfS’ style of tough talking. There are calls for the sector to “put its house in order.” It is claimed that there are too many “low value” degree courses that should be shut down and their students offered shorter, lower level vocational courses instead. It is asserted that four year programmes introduced by many universities to support less well prepared learners are simply ruses to boost fee income.
The language is a lot softer about further education. The dire state of further education funding and its often self-defeating complexity is rightly highlighted repeatedly, but the further education sector is not exposed to the same extent of critical review as universities, partly because there is far less data available. The more favourable treatment of further education partly reflects sympathy for its financial position but is driven primarily by a view that something called “technical education” has its natural home in further education and is key to driving productivity growth and social mobility.
Digging deeper, the report is imbued with an instrumentalist economic view of education and employment. The value of courses is assessed in terms of their financial cost and return, and employment outcomes in terms of what jobs pay. The intrinsic rewards of learning and fulfilling work are outside their calculations.
Augar shows that UK universities are well-resourced by international standards (surely something to be proud about) but by focusing its critique of low value courses, cross-subsidy and even heads’ pay on higher education the report prepares the ground for its fundamental recommendation, which is to redistribute resources from one sector to the other, where it believes higher returns can be found.
While there is little doubt that further education has been ill-served by decades of government policy that has treated it as remedial education, the evidence about skills needs is more ambiguous and nuanced than the report suggests, and there are significant issues with the data currently available on earnings, costs and returns.
There may also be a case for more students to study shorter courses at level four and five, but should this really be at the cost of more degree graduates? Significantly, the report neglects to point out that most advanced technical education and level four and five study takes place in higher education, and HE already has the expensive advanced facilities needed to teach these subjects.
Augar’s social lacuna
Overall, the biggest weakness in the report is its social policy. Augar’s paradigm is economic and there is no consideration given to issues such as the marked social polarisation of the UK’s higher education sector, the quality of teaching or extent of learning gain, or the relationship between education and research. Its proposals for higher education and further education are likely to result in further social stratification of tertiary education, with students from better-off families gravitating to higher education and others to further education and apprenticeships. Proposals to increase the student premium and use contextualised admissions are welcome but underdeveloped. Even on its own economic terms, and with its proposals for some tidying up of OfS and Ofsted responsibilities, much in the report introduces more complexity and bureaucracy.
Augar should not set the agenda for the future of higher education in England. It is an important contribution with much useful analysis. But other arguments need to be heard, not least for a tax and grant funded system based on partnership between institutions and government: simple, fair and effective.