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Augar review clear on headlines but murky on detail

GuildHE's Gordon McKenzie looks beneath the Augar report's headline recommendations to interrogate its impact on small and specialist institutions.
This article is more than 4 years old

Gordon McKenzie is Chief Executive of GuildHE and a former civil servant at BIS.

William Blake said “art and science cannot exist but in minutely organised particulars”. Given the minute particulars in the thorough and thoughtful analysis of the Augar panel report we might conclude that art and science are in good hands. But I want to shine a light on a couple of those minute particulars and consider the implications, if they were implemented, for smaller and specialist institutions.

It’s all in the drafting

First, the recommendations relating to the extra teaching grant so that the average unit of funding is unchanged at sector level. In GuildHE’s first response to the panel’s report, we said we wanted government to commit to funding in full the real cost of teaching all subjects, including in smaller and specialist environments. Otherwise, teaching quality and student choice will suffer.

Why is this a critical issue for smaller and specialist institutions? The accompanying KPMG report on the costs of undergraduate provision provides the answer:

“The key factors helping to explain higher unit costs includes being located in London, being smaller in size, having a more limited range of provision and a lower number of students in the staff to student ratio. All these factors could apply to a single institution.”

Indeed. And there are a number of London based creative art and design or performing arts institutions where they do.

At first sight the Augar panel’s recommendations are wholly encouraging. Government should “adjust the teaching grant attached to each subject to reflect more accurately the subject’s reasonable costs and its social and economic value to students and taxpayers,” and “support for high-quality specialist institutions that could be adversely affected should be reviewed and if necessary increased.”

But when you imagine the Office for Students and the Department for Education getting into the detail of a new teaching grant allocation methodology, even in circumstances where the Treasury has defied sceptical assumptions and coughed up in full, you come hard up against the minute particulars in the drafting: costs are to be reflected “more accurately” not necessarily accurately. Who gets to determine “social and economic value”? What criteria do they use?

Narrow interpretations of value

My worry is that economic would trump social value and that economic value would be interpreted solely as returns to the individual through higher earnings, measured by the longitudinal education outcomes (LEO) data. The panel’s report dances round this area without coming to a conclusion – they cite the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) estimates of the different costs to government of different subjects, while also noting the limitations of the IfS data. They also note the economic contribution creative arts graduates make to our “dynamic creative industries,” while also wondering if we need quite so many of them.

The problem with only looking through the LEO lens is, as London Economics noted in their report for GuildHE on graduate earnings data: “For many degree level subjects, graduate earnings are a wholly inappropriate measure of economic value”. How much student loan is paid back and how much public subsidy is received often provides a misleading estimate of the economic benefits of a degree and “should not be used to determine where funding is allocated.” This is because it “does not capture any of the wider economic impacts associated with a degree that accrue indirectly to the Exchequer, businesses or society in general. For example, these spill-over effects for creative arts graduates have been estimated to more than double the direct impact of earnings alone.” LEO is a rich and fascinating data set but it must never be the sole measure of the value of a degree.

And when it comes to just how accurately the Augar panel reflect the costs of provision, we know that they value STEM – there are many references in the report. But there isn’t a single mention of STEAM – the acronym that puts creativity and design into the skills we need for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The missing middle

Second, I’m impressed by the panel’s analysis and recommendations to address the problem of what it calls “the missing middle” with the small number of level four and five students and persistent skills gaps at technician level. They illustrate the problem well: “there has been rapid growth in demand for intermediate or technician level jobs in sectors that include construction and agriculture as well as health and information technology.” These are areas where many GuildHE members have specialist expertise and close links to employers.

The panel notes some of the recent initiatives by government (national colleges, Institutes of Technology) but concludes that “a more comprehensive solution to skills shortages will be required, encompassing all higher and further education institutions, and providing systematic sectoral and geographic coverage.”

This is absolutely right, as are the recommendations to sweep away the distinction between prescribed and non-prescribed qualifications and to introduce credit based student finance. But again, when it comes to implementing these solutions, the detail of what qualifications should be funded and by how much, this is where I begin to worry.

Bungled up in bureaucracy

The panel puts a lot of faith in the unproven capability of “the new employer-led national standards for higher technical education” as the basis for deciding what qualifications to fund from 2022/23 onwards. A lot of faith because this is essentially the same sort of process, controlled by the same bits of the skills bureaucracy as that for determining apprenticeship standards – a process which the reports notes elsewhere has been characterised by its glacial speed and lack of transparency.

The risk here is that despite the panel’s ambition to encompass all of further education and higher education, that fixing the problem of higher technical skills is seen largely through the lens of further education and its ruling bureaucracies. If that happens, then effective higher education solutions involving strong partnerships between employers and individual institutions could get squeezed out.

It’s perhaps telling that there is no mention of sandwich degrees in the report’s 216 pages.

Join us on 2 July in London for a one day conference to analyse and digest the Augar review and begin to build the response.

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