Post-18 review panel calls for (some) evidence

Apparently, it was a coincidence that the anticipated call for evidence from the independent panel to the review of post-18 education and funding came last Wednesday, the same day as the Education Policy Institute’s (EPI) conference “Higher education funding: a sustainable future?”, hosted by the British Academy.

But EPI are slick operators and put together an impressive event, including man of the moment Philip Augar. Speaking briefly, the soft-spoken chair of the independent panel said that he’d spent much of the last month reading around the subject. He also said the advisory panel had been “put together carefully” and, although as individuals “we each have our own views, as a group we need to begin with no preconceptions”.

With a history doctorate, a visiting fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research, and a stint as the Bursar at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, Augar will be accustomed to rationalising competing claims and identifying those that are fraudulent.  

Make the case

The six-week, public consultation closes on Wednesday 2 May, with a requested word limit on submissions of 4,000 words. No Easter holidays for wonks then.

Augar stated that the review would be “ambitious and wide-ranging”, as well as “evidence-based”. But, looking at the sixteen somewhat skewed consultation questions and the even more skewed wider political context, more sceptical wonks may not be convinced that it will yield either real innovation or constructive reform.

However, it should be treated as an important opportunity for all those interested in higher education to present their evidence, ideas, and rhetoric. This is the time when the sector needs to tell its own story, rather than continue to leave that to others. The trick will be to land some policy ideas that resonate, given the timing of the electoral cycle, Brexit and other political realities. So, perhaps we’ll see UUK commission research by The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), Guild HE to enlist Andrew McGettigan, or a Wonkhe-(H)EPI joint report. This is a time for the top wonks.

Many of the questions that are in the review are timeless, and it should be a useful exercise to find new and compelling answers to them, even if the review outcomes do turn out to be preordained by the wider context.

It’s also important to note what questions are not asked. The first question is relatively open: “What, if any, are your principal concerns with the current post-18 education and funding system?. But, it’s limited to diagnosing issues, not suggesting solutions that don’t fit the frame of the other fifteen questions. Plus, you’re advised to stick to 250 words per question on average.

The review has also shied away from looking more widely at post-16 education and choices, let alone wider. By the time you’re presented with options at eighteen, it’s too late for most young people to change course, with prior attainment, geography, and your parents pre-ordaining the future of most. Attainment-based selection and the concentration of “assets” over time are the real culprits here, but of course, this government doesn’t want to talk about such things.

Frame the debate

There is little new in the review scope since the 19 February announcements, with the same terms of reference, including the same four objectives of; access, VFM for all, choice and competition, and skills. The timelines also remain the same, with an interim report by the panel in Autumn, and the final review by the government in “early 2019”. That leaves a year of implementation before the year building up to the May 2022 general election.

Comparing the February and March announcements, it’s not clear why the four objectives are reordered in different ways and at different times. There is clearly an extra emphasis on the third of those objectives (choice and competition), which is alone in attracting two topics of “particular” interest, and seven of the sixteen of the questions. Perhaps this relates to the pre-emptive moves by the PM and her Secretary of State on the outcomes of the review – that there should be more variety in the market, implying costs are too high for some subjects or courses? Interestingly, at the event, Augar picked out skills as “the big question” from the four review priorities, the bottom of the list at the official launch.

There’s also reference in the documents to “the skills the UK needs”, when – of course – all good wonks know this is a review of the English system. Ah well, the other home nations are well-used to this type of oversight from Whitehall and Westminster.

In terms of approach, the panel will establish three reference groups, to “engage with” students, providers, and employers. In addition to reviewing submissions, these three groups will invite “key parties” to meet with them. Online and social media forums will also be used, especially to engage students. Focus groups and public events will also take place. I wonder if Wonkhe will get an invite? Perhaps we should run a parallel, more open process…

Battle lines begin to be drawn

Highlights from the rest of the conference included some joshing between Davids’ Willetts and Laws, the former’s ongoing book salesmanship and robust legacy defending, and some compelling evidence from IFS and EPI über-wonks. The latter inputs highlighted the lack of stability in the funding system, the risky reliance on graduate earning projections, the importance of complementarity between education phases, the relatively high levels of HE participation and spending in the UK, but also the relatively low skill levels among some UK graduates.

The sustainability of the current system was also questioned, with government accounting rules blamed for driving the system too much, and little immediate accountability for underselling the loan book and kicking rising public costs thirty years down the road.

The discrepancy was also highlighted between the 0.7% discount rate when costing loans, and the 3.5% rate when selling the loan book. DfE is already moving to plug that c.£14bn “hole” in the finances.  

I was personally disappointed that most speakers kept saying wealthier students pay more, without acknowledging that the richest – whose families don’t take loans out at all and pay their fees upfront for them – pay less, with no interest payments at all. Though interestingly, the IFS thinks the HMT likes these early payers, and that it applies to about 10% of students, falling neatly between the 7% and 15% figures bandied about elsewhere on Wonkhe. Some speakers also called TEF a measure of teaching quality – tut.

Others speakers raised current challenges with part-time students, lifelong learning, intergenerational fairness, stalling social mobility, variable fees, graduate underemployment, the “toxicity” of debt, and the regressive switch to maintenance loans.

Augar had a front row seat to it all, telling me later they “wouldn’t be rushing to any conclusions”. You can see discussion of the event using #HEReview on Twitter and download the presentations from the EPI website.

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