Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

The government’s failure today to fully respond to the Augar review and tackle the question of tuition fees, comes as no surprise to long-time watchers of the review but will have real-world policy and political consequences that will be felt deeply by the sector this year.

Born out of a short term political necessity to get fees out of the headlines and bounce decisions about them to an unknown political future, the Augar review process has had its desired effect for politicians at least by giving them an excuse to not make a decision. A reminder of their lack of decision is rolled out every few months by successive ministers, often with the added chutzpah of dressing up the indecision as some sort of progress when there’s something adjacent to Auguar to announce. In the past it was strong words on grade inflation, admissions or free speech, and today it’s the Skills for Jobs white paper which rightly will get the main headlines, as it contains many important measures for further education and skills, long-suffering fellow travellers on the government policy merry-go-round.

For the gift of being able to bounce tuition fees into the long grass, I am sure someone down the line will award Philip Augar with some heavy gongs. But it’s a shambolic and ultimately dishonest way of policymaking that will have real world consequences for universities for years to come, and does absolutely nothing to help further education for which the government has now spilt so much ink, claiming that all this is somehow to help.

The journey travelled

The political context of 2021 looks different to 2018 when Augar was launched. Think back to the pressure the government was under over tuition fees – it looked as if the tide was permanently turning against £9,000 fees and something needed to be done. But the oxygen of this debate was sucked away thanks to the gravity of the entire political system shifting towards Brexit, and with the issue pushed to a long, technocratic review, fees lost their lustre for newspapers which were previously quite reliably able to make some hay out of them.

It’s not just the political context this year either: a global pandemic is causing a daily human catastrophe and our economy is in tatters. The issues facing universities and students and indeed wider society are exponentially bigger and more urgent than might have been imagined in 2018. And the further education sector is facing its most precarious moment. But even in 2018 the case was extraordinarily weak. Let’s not forget, in the simple pursuit of a round of good headlines from reducing tuition fees, all you really do is ensure top earning graduates pay back less in student loan repayments over their lifetime and punish the sector financially.

Building back worse

By keeping the possibility of reducing fees open for longer (it’s being briefed that a decision will come at the Comprehensive Spending Review which should report by Autumn), or possibly leaving it open indefinitely as recent experience of these promises suggests, universities have no choice but take the threat of cuts seriously and plan for the worst. But the reality of the indecision, coupled with logic of the market which ministers have unleashed on the sector, and another year of likely inflated exam results means that the delay will turbo-charge student recruitment – and probably not for the better.

With a huge cut in funding still a distinct possibility, some universities are likely to accelerate expansion and recruitment plans and the grades will be there to allow it – with every additional student recruited further protecting against future cuts by strengthening the balance sheet. That’s despite the fact that fees are frozen year-on-year, meaning the value diminishes further over time and in many cases, it costs rather more than £9,250 per year to teach a full-time undergraduate student.

Shrinking right down would be another option but it’s incredibly painful to do and most university leaders I know would rather hope for the best on government policy and shoot for financial sustainability and miss, than have to further erode the student experience, cut valuable departments, courses, areas of research, and ultimately staff if they can possibly avoid it.

Argue as we might about the rights and wrongs of tuition fees and its headline fee level, the system and its political stewards are squeezing the sector year-on year. Coupled with other financial pressures on universities such as pensions and now Covid, a steady and deliberate weakening of universities over time seems like a really dumb way to run a national higher education system. Or a country for that matter. It fatally undermines the government’s other agendas such as “levelling-up” and social mobility, and gives us cause for real pessimism that as a nation we will truly be able to “build back better” when the dust settles on the pandemic. There’s a lot of sloganeering here and not much actual governing.

A volatile mix

We saw what happened last year when government-induced market volatility was unleashed, in that case thanks to their failings over A levels piling on top of eachother: richer universities seized the opportunity and expanded at the expense of poorer ones which we know in many cases saw huge and destabilising contractions of student numbers. And as we’ve been writing about now for months, packing student halls to their limits while not being able to give students very much to do to fill their time during a global pandemic doesn’t appear the wisest course of action from a public health standpoint, for student mental health and certainly not for the reputation of the sector.

And with some actuaries now suggesting the peak of the fourth wave of Covid in the UK could come just as the next academic year is ramping up, we should have every reason to be concerned about repeating the mistakes of last year.

We’ve not seen the full text of the interim response to Augar, and at time of writing I am relying on those who have seen it or have been briefed, but we are not expecting it to include anything meaningful or new on student support, maintenance, tackling the digital divide that has become so stark in the pandemic – or anything else that might actually help real students today. Forget cutting tuition fees, and other high profile but ultimately fruitless policies – there is a generation of students right now who are in need, who keep being resold the same pot of money and are being misled about their rights to recourse and refunds by government ministers on a weekly basis in Parliament, on Twitter and in the media.

People who work in higher education often think there’s a big plan to get them, ministers conconcting policies to tear down our beloved institutions and diminish the things we cherish about higher education. But the reality might be far more mundane and just as dispiriting: there are no current ministers that care enough about universities and students to sacrifice any real political capital over them.

Add to that today’s top politicians seem chronically incapable of making decisions that they fear will hurt their popularity and are wilfully ignorant about the effects of inaction because it will likely be felt after the buck has passed to someone else. And a combination of a lack of institutional memory and expertise about higher education in government and HE swallowed up by a creaking department, a largely weak and famously incompetent ministerial team, and a No.10 that has not made anything close to higher education or tuition fees a priority now or before the pandemic, means that for all the heat and noise today, universities and students can expect to find themselves in limbo once again.

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