It’s inevitable that the headline cut in fees to £7,500 and the return of maintenance grants are the items making the news.
But Phillip Augar’s report is detailed enough to hide a whole range of nuggets for avid higher education policy watchers in plain sight. Here’s a selection:
“There should be no sense of entitlement”
One of the things the sector does a lot is conflate the concepts of “academic freedom” with “institutional autonomy”, but the panel has a pointed go at redrawing the lines, effectively concluding that this freedom has gone too far. The receipt of taxpayer funding, whether this is directly through grants or indirectly through forgiveable loans, “carries with it the expectation of transparency and accountability” for the purposes to which it is put and the “outcomes that it delivers” says the introduction. Then its principle six goes even further – “the government should consider public spending on tertiary education alongside its spending on other parts of the public sector and should hold the sector accountable whilst respecting its intellectual freedom and academic autonomy”.
Not TEFit for purpose
Some of the report’s recommendations are focussed on the value of qualifications and courses – which in theory is where the Teaching Excellence (and Outcomes) Framework ought to come in. But the report notes that “the use of metrics in the TEF process must be robust and command confidence” and also notes that “the Royal Statistical Society has raised concerns about the statistical validity of the current approach and the risk of the system being “gamed”. It certainly reads like Phillip and TEF review lead Shirley Pearce have had a word.
OfS…TED to take a lead
One of the oddly lingering problems surrounding the current system has been an unforeseen regulatory hole in regulation. Right now Ofsted is responsible for inspecting apprenticeships provision up to Level 6, and the OfS (via the Quality Assurance Agency) responsible for quality assessment of HE-funded provision. That leaves no-one responsible for quality assurance for Level 6 and 7 apprenticeship providers who are not on the OfS register. The solution? One regulator should inspect apprenticeship provision at all levels to “ensure consistency in standards and in-house expertise”, and the Panel proposes that “this should be Ofsted”, to maintain a “single knowledge hub” for apprenticeship quality. “We recognise this may not be welcome by some HEIs”, notes the report. You don’t say.
(Still) no bailouts
Some might have been hoping that Augar would refine the existing OfS/DfE position on university “bailouts”, not least because the proposals note how leveraged some universities are, recommend some tougher financial times and also note the detailed insolvency regime over in FE. But no such luck – the report endorses Michael Barber’s October 2018 position, and notes that in addition to “risking moral hazard”, the cost of bailing out a failing institution would be “prohibitively expensive”. Providers should have “robust resolution plans” in place and these should be agreed with and “regularly tested” by OfS, as required through student protection plans.
Enticed into debt
In the final few weeks of pre-publication speculation, a number of reports emerged about relative success rates (and ways of measuring them) for foundation years and the Access to HE Diploma (which attracts free remission if a student goes into HE) – and we couldn’t work out why. It’s clear now. In a particularly stinging bit of criticism, the report finds it “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”. Given that students are obliged to take out an additional fourth year of higher and non-cancellable fee loans, “we question whether this is in their best interests”, and the taxpayer is “entitled to ask why universities are not collaborating with FECs on enrolling these students onto Access Diplomas with lower fees, more advantageous loan terms, and a standalone qualification”. Expect the resultant recommendation – that student finance is no longer offered for foundation years – to be fiercely opposed by parts of the sector on access grounds.
You may have thought that with an extended frame of time in which to complete its work, the panel would have been able to delve into some of the more detailed issues raised with it in relation to student maintenance. But many of the issues are parked off into long grass reviews. Living costs in London are higher but this is “also a factor in some other towns and Cities”, a subject worthy of “further enquiry”. Similarly it is “essential” for students with children to be adequately supported – but the panel has not “examined closely” whether the present arrangements adequately reflect the higher cost of living – another issues worthy of further enquiry. And whilst the panel figures that the commuter student maintenance loan entitlement (20% below the level for those who live away from home) is broadly equivalent to the spending differences, a “detailed study of the characteristics and in-study experience of commuter students” is recommended to be carried out.
The report wisely notes that for many younger students, a single three-year, full-time degree is likely to remain the most popular option. But sometimes students need to “pause their learning”, or may decide that they have made the wrong choice – and others may find themselves struggling: “many thousands” of students drop out every year, and rates are significantly higher among disadvantaged students. A hidden bit of the current system is the ability to exit most undergraduate degree courses mid-way, with either a Certificate (Level 4: CertHE) or a Diploma (Level 5: DipHE) – and the report suggests that this comes out from the shadows, suggesting that higher education institutions should award at least one interim qualification at either Level 4 or Level 5, to all students who are on a Level 6 course. This would incentivise current stage completion; make credit transfer easier: and make Levels 4 and 5 a “central and visible” part of HE and with minimal expense. Universities will doubtless worry that the current “lock in” of three years’ worth of fee income would be under threat.
One of the realities of a reduction in headline fee levels – anchored on an analysis of where the money goes right now – is that spend on access could get squeezed. Ever since OfS relaxed its minimum spend of additional fee income on access measures, there’s been a suspicion that cuts were coming. Augar doesn’t go as far as centralising all access spend, but does claw some back for reditsribution around the sector – it concludes that current resourcing of Access and Participation Plans through fee income does not reflect the additional costs faced by HEIs with large numbers of disadvantaged students who use a greater proportion of their fee income to support disadvantaged students, penalising those institutions who do the most to support social mobility. This then becomes one of the ways in which T-grant will be directed – “government should specify a minimum sum for each [disadvantaged] student, as it does in the Pupil Premium Grant for schools”. In other words there’s a big difference between topping up the T-Grant to £9250 levels sector-wide, and at institution level. These proposals explicitly attempt redistribution of some access spend from the Russell Group to elsewhere.
The cost of student accommodation is highlighted in the report, and whilst it doesn’t recommend any controls (or link maintenance to these costs), it does want to ensure that students are given “improved and more consistent data” on the range and cost of available accommodation. This, it says, should include cost to student and cost to provider to highlight the level of surplus made and where this is directed – and asks OfS to devise benchmarks for the proportion of maintenance support spent by students on accommodation. And there’s more jam tomorrow – a “comprehensive financial analysis” of private developers and operators of purpose-built student accommodation should be carried out to understand the profits that private business and investors are making from student rents.
Bits and bobs
Both tuition and maintenance loans are to be wrapped up into a four year, full time “lifelong learning loan allowance” to be used at higher technical and degree level at any stage of an adult’s career for full and part-time students. Crucially, this can be taken in bits – even down to the module level. In one worked example a student accesses student finance for a one-off module to help them “upskill or reskill or develop their career”. This is a recipe for complexity – so perhaps wisely given SLC’s record, the report says government should assure itself that “delivery partners have the capacity and capability to deliver a secure and stable platform” before implementing these changes.
Sharia compliant finance
Sections 86 and 87 of HERA allow the state to offer Sharia-compliant finance to students – first mooted in the 2010 reforms’ equality impact assessment – the government, via a 2014 consultation, then agreed to sort it out. Sam Gyimah promised early 2019, then in May Chris Skidmore implied that Augar would sort it out. He certainly mentions it – it is important that students should be able to access finance support that is “compatible with their religious beliefs” and the government will need to “consider carefully” how the changes affect plans to introduce a system of alternative student finance for students who feel unable to access interest-bearing student loans for reasons of faith. In a few months this issue will reach a decade of inaction.