I barricaded myself in a quiet office and drank copious amounts of black coffee. I learnt a new word: bifurcated, and some new terminology: operational gearing.
Last week, like many colleagues across the higher education and further education sector I spent my time reading, re-reading, neon highlighting, underlining and dissecting the multitude of recommendations in the Augar review, and making my first assessments for what they might mean for my institution, Aston University in Birmingham.
To set some context, here are a few important facts about Aston that frame and influence my reading and assessment of the Augar report, and in particular the implications of the report’s recommendations for access, participation and social mobility.
- Many Aston students do not come from advantaged backgrounds, but more-often-than-not, they move quickly into graduate and often well-remunerated roles.
- Aston has very low drop-out rates (2.8%), and, unusually, students from low participation neighbourhoods are very slightly less likely to drop out at Aston (2.7%).
- The integrated Aston foundation year is hugely popular and plays an important role in our widening participation strategy.
There are a number of recommendations in the report that Aston would welcome in principle. The return of the maintenance grant is one such welcome proposal. A sizeable proportion (37%) of Aston students come from low income households of less than £25,000, and this rises to nearly 50% of students with household incomes of lower than £42,875. How any future grant eligibility thresholds are set and tapered remains to be seen, but I would expect that many of our students would be beneficiaries of a maintenance grant.
Tucked away on page 195 of the report is a recognition that we need to take a detailed look into the characteristics of commuter students and their support needs, before determining entitlement to any maintenance grant. Policymakers might easily assume that commuter students live with their parents ‘rent-free’, but it bears repeating that often commuter students come from low income households and may well be paying rent and other subsistence costs. The panel is correct, to use their wording, that the system ought to ‘flex for different circumstances’; a hastily drawn-up maintenance grant policy will not do.
The recommendation to increase the amount of teaching grant funding that follows disadvantaged students, so that funding flows to those institutions educating the students that are most likely to need additional support, sounds like a no-brainer, albeit it is likely to divide opinion. At Aston we would welcome this move, as well as the suggestion to change the measure of disadvantage so it better captures individual-level socioeconomic circumstances.
Freezing funding hampers progress
Where in the Augar report are the potential threats? The panel’s very strong suggestion that universities ‘could and should’ absorb a further freeze on per student resources is problematic. The report points to universities’ spending a large proportion of their income from student fees and teaching grants on non-teaching activities as part of the justification for why they could and should shoulder a real-terms funding cut. But, certainly at Aston and I’m sure elsewhere, alongside subject-specific teaching, it is often our resource-intensive ‘student related central services’ that underpin the student experience and support successful graduate outcomes.
Take the Aston Placement Year for example. It takes a strong Careers and Placements infrastructure and rather a lot of staff to source quality placement opportunities for a couple of thousand students each year, to prepare students for the transition, and to provide all the on-placement support students and indeed employers need. This is not cheap, but because we contend that the Aston Placement Year is our well-tested route to delivering social mobility through employability, and at the same time delivering for our partner employers, we continue to direct resource in this way and we know it is well-spent. An ongoing freeze in per-student funding makes resourcing a strong placement offer more difficult; if the Government does not heed the panel’s recommendation that they should replace in full the lost fee income by increasing the teaching grant, a large cut would make this very, very difficult indeed.
Another of our ‘student related central services’ is our Learning and Development Centre. It is here that students come for extra mathematics and academic writing support, and for one-to-one help with assignments. Again, this is resource intensive, but it is this type of intervention, alongside peer and professional mentoring and financial support, that is keeping our drop-out rates impressively low.
Foundation years widen participation
One recommendation took me by surprise: withdrawing financial support for foundation years attached to degree courses. The view of the panel is that ‘it is hard not to conclude that universities are using foundation years to create four-year degrees in order to entice students who do not otherwise meet their standard entry criteria.’ This cynicism is not justified. Foundation years are about raising attainment and they are about widening participation. They also seem to be rather successful at doing so. Indeed, the Office for Students analysis note the panel refers to in their evidence states that the proportion of students who progressed to a degree programme in the four years following an Access course (62%) was lower than the proportion who progressed after a foundation year (79%). Furthermore, those who progressed to full-time degree-level study after a foundation year were more likely to complete their degree within four years (63%) than those on a degree after an Access course (53%). This is not a criticism of Access to HE courses. These are both very valid and different options which should never have been pitted against each other in this way.
My verdict is that the panel’s recommendations present a mixed-bag for access, participation and social mobility. Government should undoubtedly run with reintroducing maintenance grants, but not so hastily that it overlooks commuter students. The continued freeze in per student funding risks further squeezing universities’ ability to maintain high quality student services, like careers and placements and additional learning support, which support retention, success and good graduate outcomes. Doing away with foundation years would be very ill-advised and would set widening participation back.