Improving social mobility costs – a lot. The Augar review of England’s post -18 education landscape recognises this inconvenient truth. Any future government would need to invest billions of extra pounds to do its recommendations justice.
But the final equation will balance the pressures of realpolitik against the genuine long term needs of improving Britain’s poor social mobility record in an era of squeezed public budgets and Brexit uncertainty. Throughout the 216 page report, this dilemma is foreshadowed, lurking beneath every one of its proposals. Cutting university fees may provide a vote-grabbing policy ahead of a general election, but it does little to help disadvantaged students.
Homogenous leadership breeds homogenous thinking
One of the insidious features of low social mobility is our ruling elites, educated in our most prestigious universities and schools, neglect parts of the education system experienced by the socially immobile they know little about. This is one reason why it’s so important to diversify elites. The Cinderella sector of further education colleges and vocational education are victims of Whitehall’s ‘policy churn’ – constant reviews that are not followed through, not informed by the failure of past initiatives, and ignored by the media. As the Oxford educated Prime Minister, Theresa May observed last week: “with MPs, civil servants, and yes, even journalists overwhelmingly coming from university backgrounds, it’s no surprise, perhaps, that attention has drifted away from other post-18 options.”
Last year May tasked the Cambridge educated former banker Philip Augar to look at the forgotten half of young people who don’t pursue the royal route of a university degree. And his attempts to address the inequities in post 18 education have been warmly greeted. Who could disagree with more funds for malnourished further education colleges and £30k lifelong learning loans for learners of all ages and levels? This could repair the missing middle rungs of life’s learning ladder – and yield more young people with the technical skills we so desperately need. As the Augar report notes in Germany, 20 per cent of the workforce holds a higher technical qualification. In this country, just four per cent of 25-year-olds could say the same.
A win for the intrageneration
Lifelong learning loans would also aid part time and mature learners in higher education – a boon for intragenerational (as opposed to intergenerational) mobility.
Reintroducing means-tested grants of £3,000 a year to help poorer students manage their living costs (and extending grants to further education learners) is a no-brainer, cutting debts for the disadvantaged. Abolishing maintenance grants was an appalling mistake in the first place.
Cream skimming possible future Government higher education teaching funds for a ‘pupil premium’ grant for disadvantaged learners would also be a progressive step. It recognises the heavy lifting on social mobility carried out by unsung universities and colleges across the sector.
One lesson we’ve learnt from the billions of pounds of pupil premium funds allocated to schools in England is that it’s not how much you spend, but what you spend it on that counts. So it’s refreshing to see Augar reprimand the sector for the lack of evidence underpinning the £1 billion a year spent on access and outreach activities. It’s a chilling echo of the rhetoric that preceded the brutal Government cuts to the AimHigher programme a decade ago. It’s a scandal that we still know very little of what works in attracting students from a wider range of backgrounds. We’re working in the dark.
Where is the evidence?
But then Augar is silent on how we ensure a more evidence-informed future.
It seems a cheap shot to demand cuts to funds for foundation years – one of the few approaches we have evidence that can work in attracting poor students into our most prestigious universities, including Oxbridge.
This shopping list would already run into the billions. But the political tensions at the heart of Augar are most conspicuous in its headline proposals on student finance. From a purely social mobility perspective reducing the cap on university fees to £7,500 a year makes little sense. (If you’re convinced fees are a deterrent then why not consider mean tested fees?) This feels like an imposed solution before the review even started, a benefit for the middle classes.
The suggested new student loan repayment terms are regressive. Lowering the repayment threshold and lengthening the repayment period from 30 to 40 years will means graduates will repay more, for far longer. Lower and middle earners will pay more towards the cost of their degree, higher earners will pay less.
All this comes as English universities face the most ambitious government targets ever set to widen university access. These aspire to eliminate the rates of university participation of young people living in the least and most advantaged areas of the country within one generation. The biggest threat to these aspirations is that expansion of degrees grinds to a halt. And this once again comes down to that difficult question: who pays?
Augar’s independent panel insists universities must not be left out-of-pocket by a cut in fees, which they hope would be matched with an equivalent increase in grant funding from government. This will not fill university vice-chancellors with much confidence. It’s far from certain that a Treasury will be convinced of the arguments to make-up for lost income from reduced fees. That could mean less money for access work.
Theresa May has called for a “fairer Britain” that works for everyone, not just the privileged few, and promised to tackle the “burning injustice” of social inequality. But the central lesson from Augar is that this costs billions of pounds to deliver. To improve social mobility you need to address inequality. That’s a tough message for May’s successor, given the parlous state of future public finances induced by Brexit uncertainty. Equally it’s the same questions that lurk behind Labour’s popular proposals to scrap fees entirely.
Augar was born out of politics and it will end in politics. How will these recommendations surface after passing through turbulent Tory party politics, Whitehall internecine warfare, and deep Parliamentary divides? The verdict from one former Universities Minister Jo Johnson was withering: “Looks like Augar (as predicted) will destabilise uni finances, imperil many courses & reverse progress in widening access…bad policy, bad politics.” If Augar’s actions survive at all they may be diluted into cheap compromises, or cherry-picked for political gain. That won’t augur (sorry!) well for social mobility at all.