We have a wildly polarising attitude to our universities in the UK.
On the one hand they are a national treasure: we take every opportunity to brag about their international reputation and the number we have in the global top ten and top one hundred, and celebrate the contribution they make to GDP and to exports. On the other hand we complain that they don’t teach well enough, they pay their leaders excessively and their fees are too high. With the publication of the Augar review, the university sector faces another period of significant uncertainty – not, in my view, a good way to help them improve support to students or maintain their international status
Browne yielded progress
It seems that a decade cannot go by without a major government overhaul of higher education. The last major report on post-18 funding in England was published in 2010, an independent review led by Lord Browne, of which I was a member. Our recommendations were designed to be both progressive and to support the government’s aim of creating a market in higher education – with maintenance grants for students from less well-off backgrounds, and fee loans repayable only when graduates were earning a reasonable income. We also proposed that the loans be forgiven after 30 years for those – likely to include many women and those going into lower paid occupations – who didn’t earn enough to repay in full.
This represented the nation’s ongoing contribution to the public good that derives from having more citizens educated to a higher level. There was no fee cap, but universities charging fees of more that £6,000 faced a levy accounting for an increasing proportion of the fee above this level to reflect the impact on the number of graduates paying back the higher fees in full, providing a self-limiting mechanism for the fees universities would charge. Replacing most of the government teaching grants to universities with fee loans to students was also a way to protect universities from the Whitehall department funding cuts introduced to reduce the national debt.
The government at the time took a pick and mix approach to the recommendations and introduced a fee cap of £9,000, which almost every university then adopted as their standard fee level. At the time I was still in the first half of my ten-year tenure as Vice Chancellor of Aston University and remember well the upheaval of these changes for both universities and their students.
As the current government begins to contemplate taking forward the recommendations of the Augar review, what should the next prime minister learn from the last major changes?
Reviews are a creature of their politics
All higher education reviews have been creatures of the current political circumstances – Robbins grappling with anxieties about a post-war Britain falling behind the world in the 1960s, or Jarratt responding to the market-driven emphasis of the Thatcher government in the 1980s. The Browne review was no different, with its focus on the development of a market and increasing the number of young people able to study at university, while addressing the need to shift the immediate costs of universities from government to graduates in an era of austerity.
The changes implemented following the Browne review ultimately led to a collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote among young people. By contrast, the Augar review reflects a desire by the Conservative Party to boost their popularity with the young.
Whether the Augar review will lead to a revival in the Conservative Party’s fortunes among young people is less than clear. Compared with a Labour policy of no tuition fees – as well as now being plagued by negative headlines about longer-term student repayments – the review certainly has an uphill struggle.
Augar in an age of uncertainty
Both reviews have been the source of much anxiety within the sector. For higher education, the Augar report is not calling for as radical an overhaul of funding as the Browne review did. There is no fundamental transformation in the way universities fund their activities and interact with their students. To its detractors, the Browne review represented a surge towards the full marketisation of universities. In fact, it enabled and encouraged many more students from less advantaged backgrounds to go to university, and it protected universities from the harsh cuts in government spending that other government-funded sectors have experienced. As a result universities today offer better facilities and services to students than they were able to back in 2010 under the old funding system.
The impact of the Augar review could be to deliver a significant reduction in fee income to institutions, at a time when they are facing a string of other pressures: the falling numbers of 18 year olds; the perception that the UK is not welcoming of overseas students (although perhaps Mr Trump is helping us here with his attitude to China); the loss of students from other parts of the EU; the significant pension fund pressures from the Universities Superannuation Scheme and the Teachers’ Pension Scheme. It seems very unlikely that the Treasury would top up university funding to cover this loss at a time when UK growth is being impacted by Brexit uncertainty – or indeed Brexit itself.
There are also some very welcome recommendations in the Augar review: lower interest rates and the reinstatement of maintenance loans. However, whereas young full-time students, and “conventional” universities, have done well as a result of Browne review, there is a serious risk that the opposite would be the result of implementing Augar – with less funding, longer repayment terms, and a regressive impact.
But there were also some unintended consequences of the Browne review. Part-time and mature learning has suffered from the inflexibility of the university finance structure brought in after the Browne review, with such students dropping by more than a third across the UK in recent years. It is good to see Augar addressing this.
While non-university routes to higher skills have always faced challenges in this country, the cuts over the last nine years to further education have been hard-felt. The ambition of its recommendations for further education and flexible learning are a very positive feature of the Augar review.
University versus apprenticeships is increasing seen as some kind of competition. I very much dislike the “too many students go to university” mantra, and the suggestion that somehow more students who aspire to university should be persuaded to take apprenticeships and other “technical” routes. Less than 50% of our young people go to university – it is the others, the majority of young people, that we need to be worrying about, increasing their skills, and as Augar recognises this will have a major impact on the economy and their lives. I will always remember a government visit to South Korea I joined as a new Vice Chancellor where our South Korean hosts were very interested in how we maintained such a high quality university system, and were very proud to ascribe South Korea’s impressive economic growth over the previous 20 years to the fact that 65% of the population now achieved university level qualifications.
Let’s go picking cherries
One of the other differences between the Browne review and the Augar review has been confidence about the long-term impact upon publication. When the Browne review published its proposals there was a widespread expectation that they would form the basis of the government’s imminent reforms to higher education. And with some notable exceptions, this proved to be the case.
The long-term impact of the Augar panel’s labours remains much less certain. What the new prime minister will make of the review is unclear, as is whether the next government will have the bandwidth, support or funding to implement its proposals.
With a widespread recognition in parliament about the need for a revival in further education and flexible learning it is likely that some change is coming – but proposals may be cherry-picked from among the wider report. I hope they are – and carefully. The implementation of some of the Augar review recommendations would risk damaging the UK’s world class university system.