Played with a straight bat, students and graduates arguably had good reason to be optimistic about the Augar review.
It was originally signalled at Theresa May’s speech to Conservative Party Conference back in 2017, where she surprised the sector by announcing that the government would increase the amount graduates can earn before they start repaying their fees to £25,000 – “putting money back into the pockets of graduates with high levels of debt”. The terms of reference that then got announced the following February included sections on Value for Money (for students) and maintenance support. So how does the review do from a student perspective?
What is a student
It’s first worth taking a broad view on the framing of “student” in the report. Previous sector reviews have tended to suggest that the emerging “student consumer” would be more powerful – but it turned out that it was only really choosers of HE, rather than users of HE, that would wield real influence. Despite stressing that students were involved (although notably this didn’t extend to having a student on the actual Augar panel), Augar’s report is oddly silent on students and their relationship to higher education – there’s a stress on improving “transparency and accountability” for the taxpayer in return for its investment, but nothing on students. Dearing reformed complaints; Browne argued for better teaching and regulation; Augar appears to afford students no agency at all.
Even the sections on Value for Money are devoted to accountability over the taxpayer subsidy and silent on student accountability. If fees for some subjects can comfortably fall to £7.5k and there has been “pressure selling”, why aren’t we concerned for their rights to redress? What if students want more of their contribution spent on teaching rather than just the funding unit cut? And where are the protections on student welfare spend as the proposed funding freeze kicks in in the next few years?
Large parts of the report are given over to justifying that headline fee cut of £7,500, anchored in an analysis carried out by KPMG of the costs to a university of putting on a course. Yet bizarrely, the recommendations on student maintenance don’t follow the same pattern. Instead of looking at how much it costs to take part, it argues that support is “reasonably generous” compared to many countries, and anchors its recommendations to the National Minimum Wage – and when that’s worked up to a full time course, actually results in a maintenance package that is less than the current maximum loan. Students who find that rent, books and food outstrip the support available will find little comfort in the detail. And the thresholds for getting hold of a grant (rather than a loan) as part of the package are conspicuous by their absence.
The report does at least note that “the cost of living is a preoccupation of students across HE and FE”, but then dodges completely looking at the costs of participating in a course that are inside a provider’s control. Not only are the safeguards against passing costs of taking part onto students wafer thin, they’ll be under even more pressure as universities try to balance budgets. How is there a 210 page report on what students can be charged, and how – but so little on what is allowed to be included and excluded in that fee?
Livin’ on a prayer
The cost of student accommodation is at least recognised as the elephant in the package, and here the panel have heard “widespread and significant concerns about the cost of student accommodation”. Yet despite noting that average rents increased by 6% in a year and have grown by a third since 2012/13, there’s little to control the costs. HEIs “retain a responsibility for overall student welfare and delivering value for money and that this extends to university accommodation”, but the solution is posited as “improved and more consistent data” on the range and cost of available accommodation, “transparency around rent models and profit levels” for student accommodation, and “benchmarks for the proportion of maintenance support spent by students on accommodation”.
The underpinning theory is that if students can see a cost that will drive choice and drive the cost down – but it’s faulty. There’s a huge number of students who will make choices based on the “best university” that their A-level points can buy – who just get saddled with the housing their university (and tight local market) bundles. And for the rest, it may be too late – in a separate section the panel notes that expansion has been “partly funded through … universities selling student accommodation for cash upfront, sometimes committing to provide specified numbers of rent-paying students to the new owner.” In any event, why are we designing a system where students actively choose where to study based on accommodation costs when the rest of the review tries to remove variable costs as a choice determinant?
There is at least a proposal that government commissions “a comprehensive financial analysis” of private developers and operators of purpose-built student accommodation to “understand the profits that private business and investors are making from student rents”, but even it happens it’s hard to imagine that action off the back of it will make enough of a difference soon enough.
What about graduates? Martin Lewis thinks that the change proposed to the repayment threshold means both that people will start repaying with lower earnings, and that all those who are repaying will contribute an extra £15 a month – so £180 a year – year after year. Not quite the “pound in your pocket” message that Theresa May had back in October 2017. And despite Martin’s pleasure at the prospect of a “rebranding” of the loan/debt system to “graduate contributions”, because it’s still a loan there will still need to be a bit of paper telling people in their twenties how much they “owe”. Couple that to the reality that more students (or at least their parents) will pay upfront to avoid interest, and all you have left is that the perception of high fees and dragging “debt” down a bit is good – no match for Corbyn (or Nicola Sturgeon’s) “free fees” signature. And the news that top earners will pay less, middle earners will be paying into their sixties and more will probably get mum and dad to pay upfront has terrible “optics”.
Hope springs eternal
There is some hope. London weighting may get a wider review as costs spiral in other cities. Students with children’s costs are proposed to get a detailed look. Commuter students still get less support, but a detailed review is suggested. Students might reasonably argue that the level of detail lavished on university costs stands in stark contrast to a series of suggested future reviews. And there’s nothing on the widely debated problems with family means testing that bedevil a system that depends on parental contributions.
For low income students, some of the money spent now on access and participation is to be redistributed around the system – good news for those in Post-92s, probably bad news for those that get a bursary in the Russell Group. And no-one is going to argue with a proper extension of the maintenance system into FE for higher level qualifications.
But overall, the impression is that the report has been mindful of and detailed on university costs; thoughtful on FE and the politics of the “other 50%”, but pretty thin on the realities facing students or their agency in exchange for what is a higher contribution overall.