I have good reason to believe that the ink is rapidly drying on the Augar panel’s recommendations, though the date of publication of the report itself is subject to the ongoing vicissitudes of political events.
I commend the panel’s efforts to listen to representations from across the education sector and expect that the recommendations that emerge will be thoughtful and considered.
Survive and thrive
However, when parliamentarians and educational experts judge the panel’s recommendations, it must be on the basis of what is most likely to enable Britain to thrive, not on political ideology or electoral expedience. Notwithstanding the review is focused on English institutions, the outcome will be felt across Britain. With Brexit mere weeks away, and our collective economic future uncertain, the country simply cannot afford to risk damaging universities, our most reliable source of innovation, skills and global connections.
When the Prime Minister launched the Augar review of post-18 education and funding, she hailed universities as “world leaders and the jewels in Britain’s crown.” Universities underpin Britain’s global soft power and influence and set the global educational standard. At the same time, they play an anchoring role in local communities up and down the country as employers, engines of economic growth and hubs of civic engagement.
I believe that we can reasonably apply five tests in judging whether the Augar recommendations will make real improvements to life in Britain.
One: Will the proposals improve access to higher education?
Our higher education system in England, in which there are no arbitrary limits on student numbers and no fee payment up front, has generated real progress on narrowing the gap in participation between the most disadvantaged and the least. We see record highs in the percentage of young people applying to university from the most disadvantaged areas.
From 2021 the number of eighteen-year-olds in the general population is set to increase rapidly. Those young people have the right to be assured that they will be afforded every opportunity to achieve their ambitions. And older people seeking the opportunity to return to education have the same right.
We can and should be more ambitious on widening participation. No student should be deterred from realising the opportunity to change their life by fear of not having enough money to meet their daily living costs. We can certainly do more to create flexible pathways to higher-level skills for students whose life doesn’t fit with the traditional model. But our guiding principle should be to expand opportunity, not constrain it.
Two: will the proposals help address Britain’s skills gaps?
Graduate job vacancies are forecast to increase. By 2024 almost half of all jobs will require workers to have completed some form of higher-level education, according to the CBI. The graduate unemployment rate is at a forty-year low; it’s clear we need more students successfully progressing through further and higher education. With the onset of automation, artificial intelligence and digital technologies public and private sectors alike need more professionals with the skills to adapt and harness new technologies and collaborate across sectoral and geographical boundaries. This review is a golden opportunity to meet rising employer demand.
There are clear benefits to further expanding the number of university graduates. Graduates make vital contributions to everyone’s lives, providing nursing and social care, championing social change through charities and as leaders in culture and the arts.
Our competitors are investing in universities and increasing the number of graduates. Britain needs to rise to this challenge and support more of the population through higher-level study.
Three: will the proposals sustain the quality of British post-eighteen education?
Students at British universities know they can expect not only in-depth subject knowledge, but a considerable degree of co- and extra-curricular provision, one-to-one academic support when they need it, online learning resources, and engagement in current research, all underpinned by a robust system of regulation. British students benefit from systems of student representation. Their feedback is solicited and acted upon. A student who is dissatisfied has the right to refer their case to independent adjudication, at no cost.
All of this is distinctive. It is the reason that international students flock to the UK. It should not be taken for granted, and it costs money to sustain.
Further education has suffered damaging cuts and will need real investment to ensure students who choose this route have access to high-quality courses. In England, tuition fees replaced public funding to universities for teaching and capital investment in their estates, and the fee level has not kept pace with inflation. Cutting the fee level, without a commitment to make up the shortfall with public funding, will see bigger class sizes, poorer facilities, and less advice, support and choice for students.
Four: will the proposals help Britain’s universities to contribute to the quality of life in their local communities?
Universities currently generate a knock-on impact of nearly £100bn for the UK economy and support almost a million jobs throughout the UK.
Any MP knows intimately how their local university is woven through the fabric of civic life, contributing to health, sport, culture, charitable endeavour and local economic growth. Much of this activity is not formally funded; universities do it because it matters and because they have a responsibility to their local community.
In areas where traditional industries have declined the university is always at the heart of regeneration efforts, providing the research, innovation and skills to stimulate business growth and attract external investment.
It goes without saying that if the proposals reduce the ability of universities and colleges to engage with their communities, their impact will be less, and Britain will be the poorer for it.
Five: will the proposals give students ownership of their choices about the course and career path that is right for them?
Our current system is shaped by students’ choices by design. To suggest that a civil servant in Whitehall knows better than a prospective student what sort, of course, they should study and where is clearly nonsense.
Certainly, we could improve the information, advice and guidance available to students to ensure that as many students as possible choose the course and institution that is most likely to help them reach their goals.
The funding system needs to be clear and simple to promote access and ensure students understand the financial support available. It needs to be communicated straightforwardly and unambiguously to prospective students, their parents and taxpayers. But fundamentally we should respect and support students’ choices – as it is they who will have to live with the consequences.
Passing these tests will mean that the review panel has succeeded in putting forward recommendations that will enable our post-eighteen education system to sustain and grow its positive impact on individuals, the economy and the whole of British society. And incidentally, putting the next Prime Minister in the position to say as confidently as Theresa May has done that UK universities are world-leaders and the jewel in Britain’s crown.