It is now two years since the publication of the Independent panel report to the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding, known as the Augar report. Perhaps the most common observation made about it wonders when the government will respond to its recommendations.
As a member of the panel that produced the report, I probably have been paying more attention than most to the ways in which our analysis and conclusions have shaped both government policy announcements and broader debates within and beyond the sector.
My view is that the proposals from the review are rippled through these announcements and debates. The government has promised a formal response in the autumn – and in so doing has signalled its continuing interest in our discussion of headline fees, minimum entry requirements, and foundation years – but to a large extent, those commentators waiting for that response are looking in the wrong place.
I quoted the title of the Augar report in full above because our work was positioned differently to some of the other major set-piece examinations of higher education. It encompassed all Post-18 education including, crucially, further education. Furthermore, our report contributed to a review which has not yet concluded rather than being that review.
Recommendations in play
It feels as if higher education has been under constant review over the past two years, notwithstanding Covid-19. I asked a colleague to have a look at how many of our 53 recommendations have been responded positively to by government already, either through adoption, endorsement, or instruction to another agency. He calculated more than half.
They were central to the Skills for Jobs White Paper and the recent Queen’s Speech. Whilst many of these Augar-shaped initiatives relate more to further education, the one that was front and central to both – the introduction of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) – will have significant implications for universities.
The key elements of the LLE are taken directly from the first two recommendations in the report: “single lifelong learning loan allowance for tuition loans at levels 4, 5 and 6, available for adults aged 18 or over … financial equivalent to four years full-time undergraduate degree funding … access student finance for tuition fee and maintenance support for modules of credit-based level 4, 5 and 6 qualifications.”
More immediately relevant to higher education are the continuing fee freeze, which in the context of the pandemic may be viewed by all parties as a preferable alternative to any headline fee reduction, and the secretary of state’s direction to the Office for Students (OfS) to reform the allocation of the teaching grant and make regulation bear down harder on poor quality courses.
At the same time, discussions within higher education have sought to address head on some of the issues raised within the Augar review. Most notable to date has been the development by Universities UK of a draft Charter for Quality which looks to create a common framework within which universities take stock of their courses and act accordingly.
Of course, there is a fine balance to be struck here between addressing the legitimate concerns of politicians and commentators and not going further than the sector judges is in the long-term interests of students and HEIs themselves. However, the importance and timeliness of this charter is emphasised by clause 17 of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill which proposes to give the OfS authority to judge the quality of higher education by reference to student outcomes.
Support for lifelong learning
One of the central challenges that all of those with a stake in higher education face is the rising cost of the loan book. The government has been silent on Augar’s recommendations on student contributions, in particular lowering the threshold for starting repayments. This would go a long way to reversing the deepening financial hole.
At the same time, our report suggested reintroducing student maintenance grants for poorer students. Overall, our proposals here might add up to a package that all interests could get behind.
After all, these are issues the government will have to deal with at some point, not least as the LLE opens out the loan book to a broader demographic of students studying a wider range of full- and part-time courses. For instance, what will be the approach taken to interest rates during study and repayment periods (both topics on which Augar made recommendations) within the LLE?
My advocacy for the LLE during the Augar panel’s deliberations is undiminished. It is not only a potential game-changer for those 50 per cent of the population who do not go to university at 18 but it may also offer a way forward for another policy dilemma: how to support those 18-year-olds who do enrol for a full degree but may benefit more from an alternative pathway to their future careers. The number of students who may be affected here is small but nonetheless both politically salient and financially important to some HEIs.
If the government is to consider limiting the numbers of school leavers going straight on to undergraduate courses, then the argument in the Augar review suggests that minimum entry requirements or course specific quotas are a better option than institutional student number controls.
Given the current government’s commitment to skills development, any of these options would need to give these excluded school leavers genuine alternatives and the LLE – offering loans for a range of programmes at level 4 and 5 – would do just that. Of course, it follows that any withdrawal of access to degrees cannot be implemented before these alternatives are in place.
It is worth also revisiting some other recommendations that may have been overlooked but remain important. For example, there is a proposal that: “institutions should award at least one interim qualification to all students who are following a level 6 course successfully.” This is a move towards seeing most undergraduate programmes as a progression through levels 4 and 5, alongside a renewed emphasis on courses that are designed and delivered as levels 4 and 5 qualifications.
Reconsideration is also due for a proposal which received an almost universally frosty response from universities: ending foundation years. The first step might be for critics to re-read the accompanying analysis that points towards the advantages of the alternative pathway – Access Diplomas – to students. In any event, the recommendation itself allows for exemptions where these are justifiable.
My same colleague did a review of blogs and news pieces on the Augar report when it appeared. Overall, it is fair to say that the higher education sector did not give it an entirely glowing reception when it was published.
However, at a time when universities are subject to more external scrutiny than ever before and policy proposals are coming thick and fast from a variety of sources, it looks increasingly like it provides a fixed point around which universities can construct their own version of the future. This could turn out to be one of the most influential responses to Augar of them all.