Having worked in further education for over 20 years, through brief times of plenty as well as through too many years of austerity, it’s difficult not to get excited by the Augar report.
At the launch this week, it felt rather surreal to hear Philip Augar and then the Prime Minister set out that the core message of the review is the need to address the disparity in support for people who participate in higher education and those who don’t. That disparity, for me, has been a growing injustice in our society over the last decade of austerity.
Fears and hopes
I don’t want to labour the different fortunes of universities and colleges too much because the report does that so well, not least in the commitment to colleges to “restore prestige by clarifying mission, protecting title and refunding the sector”. This is about more than just funding and feels like a step change which we can build on over the coming years.
It is also hard not to be aware of the understandable fears in universities about the potential for the report’s recommendations to damage their futures. Luckily, and as we expected, many of the rumours about the review turned out to be untrue, with some of the most-feared proposals not appearing. Whether you believe that was through the university sector’s ongoing lobbying muscle or simply because the expert panel carefully examined the evidence will depend on where you sit. What has been clear over the period of the review, is that many seemed to want to set it up as something to be scared of with the very purpose of undermining it.
That said, the report’s explicit transfer of funds from universities to colleges will be worrying many finance directors in universities. Meanwhile, finance directors in further education colleges are struggling to overcome a scepticism, born of too many false hopes, as to whether it will ever get implemented. That scepticism is very tempting, with some commentators already speculating and others probably hoping that the report will disappear along with Theresa May.
This will matter to a future PM
Tempting though it might be, it’s worth thinking through what might drive the next PM to want to implement it. Other commentators have already looked at the Conservative Party leadership candidates’ track record on education and it appears that most are not the biggest friends of the university sector. This might mean that the serious questions the report raises about economic value and ethical recruitment will not be overlooked. Undoubtedly, this will place more pressure on the higher education sector to self-regulate.
The new PM will also face at least two strong political forces which will be difficult to resist and which the Augar report helps address. The first is the pressure from employers to help them find and develop skilled workers, at all levels, not just at degree level and beyond. The focus on higher technical skills is not just a whim, but a well thought-through outcome of careful analysis, much of which is set out in the report and accompanying papers.
The second will be the need for a new PM to show that they care about all adults, from all communities and walks of life. The end of the love affair with universities which seems to have emerged over the last year or two means that politicians cannot simply point to more people going to university; they will need to show that opportunities exist for those who do not have and never will have that chance. Augar gives a cogent and evidenced set of recommendations to address that need and colleges stand ready to deliver.
It is telling that I have yet to see a response to Augar which does not acknowledge the need to invest more in colleges and opportunities for adults below degree level. It is rare to have that degree of unanimity and even rarer for politicians to ignore it.
So much for the new Prime Minister and their views, what about Treasury which will remain powerful in how the report fares? Their views on value for money will surely be important and it is not enough to simply dismiss them with the absolutely correct view that ‘higher education is about more than wage gain’. Yes it is, but I’ve never seen Treasury worry too much about the softer end of those sorts of discussions. So it’s likely that Treasury will not want to bring all of that new liability and costs on board without some reforms; it’s easy to see how they will like the lower fees, the longer repayment period and the power to only top up with teaching grant in more economically valuable areas.
More work to do
There were three areas of the review which I think need more work. One is on demographic changes. There will be many in universities betting on the rising population helping their finances but it is unlikely that Treasury will allow public funding to grow enough to support more of the residential 3-year bachelor’s degrees without some big changes. Our model of high investment on 18 to 22 year olds just looks outdated in a rapidly changing world, with people making multiple job and career changes and working for over 50 years. If universities and colleges are really focused on the long-term, their planners will be thinking about lifelong learning rather than just the next wave of 18 year olds they can sell courses to.
Lifelong learning is the second area that the report was relatively silent on. Changes in the labour market will necessitate a flexible and accessible training, skills and education system all over the country. That need will grow and lead to more pressure on the apprenticeship system, the third area which needs more work. The report rightly questions the use of training funds on those who already have degrees when colleges are going to start turning away construction and care apprentices from small companies in September. In a world of constrained public spending, more thought though will have to go into how apprenticeships are funded, prioritised and promoted.
A bigger pie
The biggest constraint for this review was the need to be fiscally neutral, which was almost achieved. Between universities and colleges this is where we need to work together – we have to strongly and boldly make the case for an increase in the spending envelope for education. I certainly would not want to see universities having to try to cope with the austerity cuts that colleges are still struggling with. What we need is a system in which both sets of institutions can flourish and thrive because both have unique yet overlapping roles.
The need to work together to increase the overall government and employer spend on post-18 education is strong; but we also need to work together to properly fund 16 to 18 education as well, because that is where every single young person learns and it is woefully underfunded compared with other countries and in historical terms. Universities need well-educated and motivated young people and adults, the majority of whom will come from college. I hope that Augar has shown that we should not fight over the pie, but work for it to be bigger.