Scottish university leaders have been waiting for the Augar review with some anxiety. Their interest is much greater than you would expect from the review’s very brief reference to devolved issues, which you’ll find on page 203 and which simply says: “we do not anticipate any major change in cross-border student behaviour as a result of our proposals.”
In Scotland, we’re understandably concerned that the impact on student behaviour, and on institutions, may be quite profound. However, now that we’ve seen the report it will also be useful to reflect on how Scotland can chart a path that draws on the best of Augar’s insights and makes them something that will work with our values.
Person and system sustainability
Let’s deal with the concerns first. At a level of principle, we want students to be able to study wherever they choose in the UK, to find the right course for their aspirations. That can only happen if it’s financially sustainable for them, through the mobility of student finance, and if it’s financially sustainable for institutions. There’s a real risk that for competitive reasons Scottish universities will have to lower fees for rest-of-UK students, creating a shortfall of around £30 million a year. When the Scottish government decided to make undergraduate education free for Scottish and EU-domiciled students in 2011, one pillar of the funding model to support free higher education was the new revenue stream that would come in to Scotland from fees paid by students from the rest-of-UK. So we need to see guaranteed funding to replace lost rest-of-UK income if we’re to avoid a deepening spiral of financial decline.
Already on the case
But the Augar review is about much more than fees. The report communicates a vision of learners being able to access flexible opportunities at various levels of education, throughout their working lives.
What’s not to like about that? It fits absolutely with our values in Scottish higher education. The question is can we work within Scottish structures to make it happen here?
We start with some advantages. Augar recommends that students should be able to achieve work-relevant qualifications below degree level. We are already making progress in this area. Our deepening relationship with the college sector means that 26 per cent of undergraduate entrants – nearly 10,000 learners a year – are achieving an employment-related Higher National qualification on the way to their degree. Scotland’s 4 year degree structure provides a flexible spine for entry and exit at different points with recognised qualifications, including the thousands of graduates who go straight into employment after 3 years, with a well-respected Ordinary Degree.
Augar is right to shine the light back on lifelong learning and give due attention on how to reverse England’s free-falling part-time student numbers. Scotland’s own review of student finance led by Jayne-Ann Ghadia in 2017 stopped short of looking at part-time student support but recommended that the Scottish government pick this up. A consultation on this issue from the Scottish government is now overdue. Augar gives renewed impetus to get this going in Scotland so that we don’t find ourselves slipping behind England, as well as Wales, on part-time support.
The wider value
We also have distinct values about what a degree is for. Employment outcomes are of course vital; employability is deeply integrated into the curriculum and our graduates have high rates of positive destinations. However, Scotland does place a wider personal and civic value on education. At university, each institution defines a broad set of graduate attributes so that people are not just learning a subject, they’re learning how to be successful in life and work. This gives us common ground with our national skills development agency, recognising that the development of a flexible set of “meta-skills” will be key to individuals’ success in a volatile economy.
We can also chart a distinct path in Scotland through the value we attach to graduates in the creative disciplines, including those from our world-class specialist institutions. As well as powering our nation’s cultural revival, many of these graduates are entrepreneurs in their own right.
So, let’s deal frankly with the concerns Scottish university leaders have about the review’s fees recommendations. But let’s also look beyond that to a distinctive Scottish way of taking forward the best parts of Augar’s vision. We’re starting from the right values and the right structures.