To paraphrase Groucho Marx, “I’ve read a report which will have a significantly positive impact on higher education. But this wasn’t it.”
Others have pointed out that if implemented, the Augar proposals would be broadly regressive – currently, only graduates on reasonably high salaries repay their loans in full; extending the repayment period from 30 to 40 years means those on lower salaries continue their repayments for up to a further ten years, increasing both the absolute amount and the proportion of the tax take from these lower earners.
There’s also the prospect of a cut to funding for the university sector. The Augar review clearly accepts that the cut in fees would not be made good in full by the Treasury, given the reference to the need for universities to react to the fee reduction with “efficiency gains.” Just to press the point home Augar proposes to freeze the per-student resource for a further three years.
Adult learning – a swing and a miss
The saving grace was supposed to be the decision to take seriously – for once – adult learners, part-time education, and lifelong learners. There is a growing recognition of the crisis that lifelong learning has been pushed into by the three most recent administrations, from Labour’s disastrous equivalent and lower qualifications (ELQ) policy which cut funding for departments for continuing education and had a huge impact on the Open University and Birkbeck; to the coalition government’s tripling of student fees, with Willets admitting that his biggest mistake in government was his failure to heed the warnings that – for an adult learner – having to take out a loan to study will be weighed up against the other options, of a loan to replace the car, or have a family holiday. And let us not forget the Cameron and May governments’ pursuit of austerity – the end of which May announced some time ago, but the reality of which has continued to grind relentlessly on.
Several commissions have been established to consider what to do about this crisis in adult education. The commission chaired by Vince Cable has already called for Individual Learning Accounts, a conclusion which is likely to be either welcomed, or built upon to go further, by the other commissions yet to report.
Forever a loan?
Not Augar. Rather than learning accounts, they’ve suggested a right to go further into debt throughout one’s life – a “lifelong learning loan allowance”. Really?
The Augar review points out that the further education sector is underfunded, but doesn’t come up with any very interesting ideas of how further education colleges might collaborate with universities, local authorities, the WEA and others, to ensure proper provision over the relevant region (which the recent Civic Universities Report, from the commission chaired by Lord Kerslake, advocates).
There is also a sense that the Augar report assumes that those who miss out on university education first time round, should make do with an FE college for their second chance, rather than aspire to go to university. As Helena Kennedy’s report argued more than twenty years ago, the UK system is based on the principle that “if at first you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed.”
Augar argues “everyone should have the opportunity to be educated after the age of 18, an ambition that amongst other things requires a national network of high quality universities and FECs. Such a network already exists in HE” – but the report doesn’t recognise that most of those HE providers have closed their departments for continuing education, which provided these “second chance” opportunities. The 1919 Report on Adult Education called on all universities to establish departments for continuing education. At the time they all did. Why did Augar not repeat that call?
The perils of the rebrand
Augar suggests renaming the current offer of repayable loans to a “student contributions system” – which reminds me of Not the Nine O’Clock News announcing the renaming of Windscale to Sellafield, and “radiation” to “happy moon beams”.
The Augar review would only make sense if the loss of funding from the proposed fee reductions were made good by the Treasury. We’d need government grant funding to be used to enable lifelong learning courses to be affordable, reversing the damage caused by the tripling of fees. Adult learners should be able to receive Learning Accounts rather than just the right to go deeper in debt, with such Learning Accounts being fully funded. And of course FE should be funded properly, but not by taking funding away from universities.
Unfortunately, these positive measures seem unlikely. But then, given that the Augar review was a pet project of May’s, the likelihood of it being implemented may disappear with her (along with, one trusts, her hostile environment for overseas students).