Weighing in at a mighty 200 pages, the Augar review of post-18 education in England is remarkable for the scope of its recommendations and the depth of its reflections.
Having been given permission in the terms of reference to address the whole post-compulsory education system the review is quietly radical in its inclusion of both higher and further education in its definition of the mission of the post-compulsory education system to undertake research, scholarship and innovation, promote the ability of citizens to reach their full potential, contribute to civic wellbeing and meet the economic and skills needs of the country.
The proposed headline undergraduate fee cut and attack on so-called low-value higher education courses has been widely trailed, but unlike its predecessor the Browne Review, the report makes the effort to explore the purposes, strengths and weaknesses of the current system, particularly with regard to addressing skills gaps at levels four and five, and assessing the consequences of a fully marketised higher education system, such as the decline in part-time study and lifelong learning, before moving to specific proposals around the funding of higher education providers, further education colleges and students.
Though much in the report will provoke contentious debate, the panel cannot be faulted for its careful assessment of the available evidence, its balanced reporting of its engagement with stakeholders, and the provision of a basis for its recommendations. That said, there are a number of recommendations that are burdened with the universal caveat that “more research is needed”, at least one of which will cause heads to be scratched at the Office for Students in the months to come.
Taking back control
A core principle of the report is that the market cannot alone deliver hoped-for policy outcomes; government policy must play a role. The key problems to be solved are the decline in overall participation in post-18 education since 2010/11, a lack of equity and flexibility in the post-18 system and the rise of “low-value” higher education – courses that do not deliver outcomes in line with the imagined aspirations of the students choosing to study them, or a return on investment for the taxpayer.
The panel accepts the existing (and contested) evidence on skills shortages and an oversupply of graduates, with the caveat that there are limitations to the available evidence on salary returns to specific degrees, and the social value of some professions is not always reflected in the salary.
To address the relative lack of students pursuing qualifications at levels four and five, the panel recommends that students be given access to a flexible lifelong learning entitlement equivalent to a that would enable them to build up credits module by module or year by year rather than signing up for a full level six qualification at the point of registration, and the removal of rules that restrict access to finance for the pursuit of equivalent and lower qualifications.
Higher education providers would be expected to issue interim level four/certificate and level five/diploma qualifications to all students, whether or not they intended to pursue a full degree. The Office for Students would be given regulatory oversight of all qualifications at levels four and five, and a national kitemark system would flag the qualifications that are most valuable to students.
The costs of delivering higher education
The panel concludes, not without some frustration at the limitations of the available data, that the purported cost of delivering traditionally lower-cost subjects has increased at a higher rate than the cost of delivering higher-cost subjects, suggesting that the current fee cap is having an inflationary effect on spending in the lower-cost subjects. It is also noted that English institutions appear to spend relatively more on non-teaching activities than comparator countries, some of which relates to wider student support and widening participation, some to central administration and up to ten per cent of the fee on margins to fund future sustainability, an amount the panel considers excessive.
On examining the returns to different subjects, the case is made that while subjects like business, the creative arts and social studies have value, the volume of students studying these subjects is in excess of the value created, while there is a relative lack of provision of courses in subjects like engineering and the physical sciences.
On the principle that no student should pay more than what their course might reasonably be judged to cost, the panel recommends the lowering of the undergraduate fee cap to £7,500, to be introduced in 2021/22, with the overall unit of resource per student frozen for the next three years. This would in practice mean the return of the teaching grant, which, if implemented, would provide additional income to universities in respect of their provision of higher-cost subjects.
On widening participation funding, the current system wherein a proportion of the student fee is expected to be spent on access, retention and success would be scrapped in favour of a Student Premium distributed to universities as a grant based on their intake of socially and economically disadvantaged students based on individual, not area-based, measures of disadvantage.
The panel stops short of recommending a minimum grade threshold for access to funding for level six/degree qualifications, but suggests that if insufficient change had been demonstrated within three years there would be a case to implement such a system, or to set student number caps on courses offering poor value for money. The report recommends the removal of funding entitlement for foundation years, suggesting that universities that offer these entry routes should be given two years to establish an Access to HE route in its place.
Though demonstrating that the panel understands in detail the current system of student loans and graduate repayments, the basis for much of the recommendations for reform to the system is that people in general do not. Following the ruling of the Office of National Statistics last year that the “write-off” of un-repaid student debt should be reflected in the public accounts, the panel takes the view that measures should be found to reduce the overall cost to the taxpayer of the student finance system.
Incredibly, research undertaken by the Department for Education cited in the report finds that people would prefer higher monthly graduate repayments and a longer repayment period in return for lower fees and a lower rate of interest. As such it is recommended that no real rate of interest be charged during the period of study, that the repayment threshold be reduced to the median salary for non-graduates (so that graduates start to repay at the point they benefit from higher education), and that the repayment period be extended to forty years.
The panel also recommends that the sliding scale of interest based on salary be retained, and lifetime repayments be capped at 1.2 times the original loan amount, to avoid the anomaly wherein those who earn more at the early stage of their career end up paying back less than those who earn more later in their career, because of the effect of interest rates.
The panel views it as unfair that the current system requires those students from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds to take on more debt to fund maintenance costs, and recommends the re-introduction of maintenance grants of at least £3,000 for eligible students. The panel also recommends that the expected contributions of parents for students in a higher family income bracket be made explicit. In line with the aspiration to create a level playing field, it is recommended that there be a single system of student maintenance loans and grants encompassing all qualifications at levels four to six.
A significant caveat to all this is that an assessment of the total cost of the proposed new system is deferred pending the development of a new methodology for the treatment of student loans in the national accounts.
Further education and apprenticeships
The panel argues that further education colleges need a new mission and vision, backed by meaningful funding. Protection of college title equivalent to that enjoyed by universities, a substantial increase in capital investment and the creation of a coherent national network of further education colleges delivering skills needs focused on levels three to five are the core recommendations.
It should be noted that the panel appears agnostic about which providers deliver which kinds of qualifications, but the role of further education in providing higher technical and vocational qualifications and in providing a pipeline to higher education in the form of adult education at levels two and three, is firmly recognised.
On apprenticeships, the panel queries the growth of degree-level and level seven apprenticeships, noting the relative expense of this route and that these create a lack of equivalence between students pursuing degrees. It is recommended that Ofsted assumes responsibility for assessing all levels of apprenticeship quality, and that funding for apprenticeships at level six and above normally only be available to those who do not already hold a degree-level qualification.