This article is more than 5 years old

Augar’s work is not happening in a political vacuum

PR expert Charles Heymann takes a journey through the UK's Brexit-ridden political scene, into which the Augar report will land.
This article is more than 5 years old

Charles Heymann is a consultant in strategic communications and reputation management.

Given that we are in the midst of a constitutional crisis, there is a certain naivety to the whispers, speculation and guesses about the Augar review of post-18 education and funding. These are not normal times.

The advisory panel’s final report – currently expected next month – is at the mercy of completely unpredictable political forces. These will determine whether we get radical, long-term reform, whether it will be cherry-picked or bolted on to existing policy or whether, as an entire package, it is dead on arrival.

So with just weeks to go, it is time to inject some common sense to the ongoing discussions and assess what we know, and what we don’t.

May day

From the start, the political impetus for this review came from Number Ten. It was in Theresa May’s much-maligned manifesto in 2017; it was May who announced it at Conservative Party Conference that autumn, and it was May who removed the ministers that were blocking it. Number Ten dictated the final terms of reference, May personally launched it, and it was May’s friend Philip Augar who was asked to lead it.

The original timings lent themselves to relaunching the Prime Minister after a smooth and orderly EU withdrawal on 29 March. It would have helped to signal that May had a domestic programme beyond Brexit, based on her pledge to tackle the “burning injustices” in British society.

All of which raises the question: what happens when – as seems an inevitability given the events of last week – Theresa May is no longer in Number Ten? In the next general election, the Conservatives will still need a retail offer to take on Labour’s flagship pledge to abolish tuition fees. The shock and surprise of losing the totemic seat of Canterbury after 100 years, and the concern about other university towns, is still present.

But a new Tory Prime Minister will want to own his or her own agenda. A Javid, Hunt, Gove or Rudd administration could take quite a different approach. We may see tuition fees tucked away in a future manifesto, or we may go back to square one. It wouldn’t be the first education review to end up gathering dust on Whitehall shelves – remember Leitch or Tomlinson?

Fake news

We have had a mass of selective leaks on what the expert panel might advise ministers,  fuelled by nods, whispers and guesses. But leaks very rarely give the full context or policy proposal in all its nuance. The headlines give the impression Augar will recommend cutting the fee cap for degree courses and funnel more people into study at levels four and five, and more or less leave it there. We need to see the full package before passing judgement.

Augar has played his cards very close to his chest throughout. But close observers have always seen Alison Wolf as the key member of his panel. Wolf has established a coruscating critique of the “dysfunctional” tertiary system, arguing HE’s expansion has crippled other routes to high skills. She argues vocational education, qualifications, apprenticeships system and the labour market are all out of whack and that it is highly regressive to require students today and taxpayers in future to invest in a system where graduates end up doing non-graduate jobs.

That’s a view shared broadly in Number Ten, the Treasury and even the OECD. Perhaps it is no surprise that the original terms of reference deliberately opened the door to a Wolfian solution. She has long argued for a radical rebalancing of public subsidy from HE to FE, advocating a highly flexible funding and credit-based system, including replacing the current higher education tuition loan scheme with a lifelong tertiary education allowance.

The influence of this sort of thinking in the corridors of Whitehall was underlined too in Education Secretary Damian Hinds’ speech last month setting out the intention for major supply and demand-side reforms to level four and five higher technical provision. So, even if Augar recommendations slip off the agenda of a new Conservative leader, it is doubtful that we will see the end of these arguments.

Doing the maths

The window for seriously influencing the first stage has been and gone. A detailed draft will have gone into the Whitehall machine by now, and we wait to see how it turns out. Number Ten, Treasury and DfE all have different agendas.

The Treasury wants to address decades-old policy problems – closing the skills gap, boosting productivity, labour market flexibility, regional growth and development, and rebalancing the economy away from the London and the City. The Chancellor holds the purse strings in the forthcoming spending review, and the industrial strategy remains a powerful lever over investment decisions.

DfE’s instinct, on the other hand, is for more incremental change. It is in the midst of a challenging technical education programme, including T levels and apprenticeships, which need a coherent funding system to underpin it. The OfS is not fully up and running yet. And at policy official level, it is acutely aware of adding complex structural reforms to the volatile financial environment that universities and colleges are operating in.

But complicating all this is the huge burden of Brexit, which means ministers have limited political bandwidth, legislative space or civil service capacity to push any major new domestic programme.

It is frustrating, given the parliamentary maths, there remains so little appetite to build cross-party approach on tertiary education, missing a huge opportunity to end HE, FE and technical education being a political football.

So the rapidly changing dynamic in Parliament, however, has the potential to build bridges. Moderates and centrists in both major parties are collaborating to thwart the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal – creating a kind of shadow executive in the Commons. And perhaps a similar approach might work for impasses in domestic policy?

Narrow arguments

Why build a consensus? Because it is tertiary education as a whole, not HE alone, which matters most to society at large, as the late David Watson wrote in 2012. And as a country, we need to have a model which works for 100% of our citizens after compulsory education ends, not the 40% who do undergraduate degrees.

So in approaching the next stage of the review, university leaders cannot be too narrow, risk-averse and protectionist. Sure, there are strong opinions about the impact of any cut in income on teaching, research and access widening participation but let’s not pretend everything is hunky dory now.

We need to close the disconnect between the political rhetoric over fees and the commercial reality of running universities. We’re already seeing institutions struggle across the board, quite aside from the unintended consequences like part-time and adult numbers collapsing.

So we can criticise Number Ten’s political strategy but the question being posed is: what are the outcomes we want for society and the economy – and what do we need from the post-18 system to achieve it?

Only when we have nailed that down, can we start to design an integrated national strategy, a model of lifelong tertiary education and the investment and funding system required. The critics will say we’ve been here before. After decades of debate, overhauls and reviews, the old binary divide between HE and FE remains.

Spring awakening

The timetable for the summer spending review (to public finances from 2020-21) might well by thrown out by the economic and political consequence so a no-deal or delayed Brexit.

But at some point this year DfE (and BEIS) will be going into bat for post-secondary education, with Augar’s recommendations as a guide.

The reality is that universities start the spending review towards the back of the queue. Anyone watching BBC’s Hospital series this month will see what the public sector under huge stress looks like. And across the board, there are similar stories: social care, local authorities, welfare, housing, police and prisons.

So it’s been an aggressive strategy from Universities UK, the Russell Group and others that any cut in headline tuition loan is backfilled pound-for-pound with direct public funding – making, in effect, £9,250 per a student a red line for public subsidy. That’s on top of calls for more direct funding for maintenance grants and replacing EU research funds.

We need to arm DfE with the arguments to make the case on our behalf, but HE needs to be very specific about how it will use additional direct teaching grants over and above a reduced baseline loan limit and be realistic about what it can achieve.

Three questions

One, why are we ignoring the brutal brutal cuts to schools, sixth forms, colleges and adult education since 2010? The Association of Colleges’ David Hughes has written on Wonkhe about building an alliance for change not getting into a HE vs FE bidding war. That’s why it is so frustrating that university bosses’ instinctive reaction to the prospect of budget cuts is to pull up the drawbridge to protect the sector and not make a case for investment across the entire education system. The key to social mobility doesn’t start at 18. It starts at birth.

Two, are we forgetting how politically toxic university funding has been for 25 years? Even Tony Blair at his zenith struggled to make a case for top-up fees. The current flux in Westminster means the current loan system has increasingly fewer defenders. Its architects will disagree, but in the end, it pulls off the singular achievement of making everyone feel a loser: government, the taxpayer, students and universities. Without a bold rethink, surely it will be impossible to take into the next election.

And three, while there has been plenty of talk about fiscal illusion, is it pure fiscal delusion to demand billions of pounds of taxpayers’ cash with no questions asked or strings attached? As the sector braces itself for Augar, perhaps we would do well to keep the bigger picture in mind and ask what autonomy or independence we are prepared to concede for financial security.

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