So that’s it. After any number of events and articles, and any amount of discussion, we leave the central £7,500 fee plank of the Augar report behind on a rainy Sunday morning two weeks before Conservative Party Conference.
For a process that was designed to yield a retail offer for students and young people supposedly swayed by Corbyn’s free education language in 2017, it is strange to see it die via an article in the Sunday Times in the dog days of a government firmly on an election footing. Though other parts of the Augar recommendations will perhaps make it through the month, the “big difference” Augar was supposedly making to Gavin Williamson’s thinking suddenly looks a lot less big.
There will be delight in the sector, which has shared no small concern about the likelihood of lost fee income being topped up by the Treasury. Students never firmly got behind the proposal, noting perhaps the minimal difference between their repayments now and those under the proposed scheme. And ministers were notably slow to sing the praises of the report – culminating of course in Gavin Williamson’s half-hearted comments at the Universities UK conference.
Red lines (don’t do it)
If Augar was difficult to love, a finger must be pointed at the restrictions and caveats set out by the former PM. Theresa May’s red lines, as it were, boxed the panel into proposals that could only really be described as tinkering with the current approach. Arguably we do need a radical look at the HE funding system, but a revenue neutral and fiscally conservative set of proposals was never going to be that.
Speaking to Wonkhe on numerous occasions Philip Augar seemed weary of defending what quickly became the headline news from a report that he insisted was a balanced package of recommendations to be taken as a whole. The fact that no HE funding report has ever been implemented without changes (Browne was almost completely ignored, for instance) didn’t seem to register.
The Sunday Times reports that ministers felt there was no parliamentary majority for any legislation – a curious position for a government that has prorogued parliament to bring forward a new Queen’s Speech full of legislation. And has the integrity of this rationale awaiting a ruling by the Supreme Court. It feels like a briefing that will cause far more problems than this splash in support of another crop of league tables warrants.
Making changes to the fee cap would just require a statutory instrument. From the way HERA has been drafted it is difficult to see what the precise process would be to lower fee caps – Schedule 2 and section 119 are clear that raising them requires an affirmative SI (a vote in both houses), but there is no indication that lowering fees would require such a vote.
If the will was there, the cuts could have been made. Even if an affirmative SI was required, stories that the government will attempt to fill parliamentary time with debates on the Queen’s speech and a rumoured emergency budget suggest that an extra day of talk about student fees would not have been unwelcome. And who, frankly, with an election pending would want “voted against lowering student fees” attached to their parliamentary record?
Last night a JJ saved my life?
For the real reason I would look to the efforts of erstwhile minister Jo Johnson. Six weeks would be plenty for him to kill off the idea of ill considered tweeks to his 2017 legislation. He lost his job over opposition to the post 18 review, so given a second chance he was always going to take the opportunity to render it harmless.
An experienced minister, he’d know which strands to pull to get his preference through the DfE machine. A seat at the Cabinet table and his experience writing the 2015 manifesto meant that he could quash any party resistance (and really, apart from Theresa May and possibly Damian Hinds, was anyone pushing for implementation on electoral grounds?)
Other policy priorities, such a review of support for part-time and mature students, made their way into Williamson’s unexpected letter to the Office for Students. The fact that we are looking at a new (albeit limited scope) fees and funding review before the current one has concluded suggests an clear appetite to move on. If Augar were on Williamson’s desk they it lay a long way below the ceremonial sword he purloined from the Ministry of Defence and a large pet spider.
Other changes and other challenges will almost certainly be thrown at the HE sector, but it seems that lowering the fee cap is off the table for the current administration. Beyond that – well, there are many strands to the web of Chronos.