May’s flagship drops anchor

As we know, the Augar review was published ahead of Theresa May’s departure and has been positioned by some as her way of attempting to secure a domestic legacy.

It is worth noting however, that this was not the Prime Minister’s only flagship agenda. Increasing social mobility, prospering towns and cities, and the emergence of place-based policy all featured highly. It seems when Mrs May honourably spoke of overcoming burning injustices, the relationship between these commitments and the Augar review was somewhat overlooked, and the value of universities in driving those other agendas has been underestimated, if not missed altogether.

Does Augar remedy those that feel left behind?

Universities up and down the country contribute significantly to civic, public and social initiatives, and anchor institutions in particular play a special part in addressing the challenges faced by so-called ‘left behind’ places. There are countless examples of universities working to change the towns and communities around them; supporting vulnerable and disadvantaged populations; impacting economic growth through strategic local partnerships; and empowering young people to buck trends and stereotypes caused by limited social and cultural capital.

This will remain ever-important for some student populations in regional anchor institutions. But should a fee cut follow without government top ups, an unfortunate alternative could eventuate. Providers will likely need to reduce support for the wider needs of disadvantaged students, and – particularly given the impact of Brexit uncertainty on other funding and revenue streams – batten down the hatches on external, public facing initiatives which contribute to their respective regions.

More generally, the political and media consensus that the market is broken is not remedied by over-interference. The government seeks to promote student choice and value for money in a competitive market, but this philosophy is inherently at odds with overregulation. Further restriction of the market through reduced fee caps could have the additional unwanted side effect of reducing innovation by modern universities who champion and embrace it.

Restricting regional development

It is fair to say that Augar broadly presents some positive recommendations in the interests of students. The reintroduction of maintenance grants, more flexible learning opportunities, and capped interest rates during study are encouraging and might incentivise more disadvantaged people to enter higher education.

On the other hand, some of the more restrictive recommendations relating to degree apprenticeships could have a contrary effect and miss a trick in terms of long term regional economies. The proposed reprioritisation on industrial strategy requirements might appear a sensibly focused use of public funds, but this approach must include localised industrial strategies to properly meet regional skills needs.

After all, degree apprenticeships have a role in upskilling valuable staff in place-specific industries, and in filling local skills gaps through business and provider co-design. They also provide a route for students who rely on in-study income and non-traditional access to higher education. The proposal to make funding for level 6 and above available only to apprentices who have not previously undertaken a publicly-supported degree is therefore undesirable and short-sighted in terms of widening access, retraining and upskilling to sustain a competitive workforce both regionally and nationally.

Overall, there is a danger of degree apprenticeships becoming over-politicised by policy and funding tensions across Whitehall. The system might need work but policymakers should be cautious not to undermine its value altogether.

So what should we do in the wake of the recommendations? To take steps beyond financial contingency planning at this stage would be premature, as we simply don’t know how the government will respond. We must remember the report is only a recommendation. It is quite right for the sector to be animated by it, but due process must follow before anything can be taken forward. In my time as a civil servant, I saw many a report was put out to pasture – notwithstanding its importance – because when it came to the crunch the political appetite and fiscal policy was ultimately lacking.

Perspectives from Teesside

It remains the case that universities like Teesside have a firm place in their regions and should strive to uphold their social ambitions, without changing course to navigate Augar. Three things will be essential in achieving this. First, staying true to an effective corporate strategy and mission which identifies civic and public engagement as key policy drivers for change. Second, continuing to innovate, both in student and community terms – volunteer programmes, for example, provide valuable life experiences for students which in turn can deliver positive outcomes in their communities. Third, exerting compelling influence before policymakers and parliament decide. To ensure the worthy social and place agendas are maintained, anchor institutions should encourage collective lobbying through more strategic channels, including industry and local authority partners to contribute to the debate in any consultation process, before it has unintended regional consequences.

It is too early to anticipate a new government’s take on the post-18 review, and what, if any, appetite there will be to top up fee cuts while fiscal policy is still set to reduce the deficit. But if place and social mobility remain on the next political agenda, let them not be forgotten in the fallout of Augar.

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