Ninety-eight times. That’s how often the Augar report uses the word ‘value’.
The first is in the foreword where Philip Augar defines his report as an opportunity to consider whether post-18 education is “delivering value to students and taxpayers”. The last is a recommendation that teaching grants should “reflect more accurately the subject’s reasonable costs and its social and economic value”.
Five times. That’s how often the panel acknowledges that the value of education cannot always be reckoned in pounds and pence. And of those five, three are followed within a few lines by the word ‘but’ and a reminder that the pennies count.
A word that means whatever you want it to mean
The word “value” appears in the panels’s terms of reference too. Yet no attempt was made by the Prime Minister, who commissioned the Review, to define the value that post-18 education sows in society. Nor by the DfE in publishing its remit. Nor by the Augar panel of experts itself.
The Education Secretary defined it though. On 26th May, just four days before the report was published, Damian Hinds called for “an end to low-value degrees”, explaining that “poor value” meant graduates failing to earn enough five years after leaving university to start making loan repayments.
In that case, my undergraduate degree was “poor value”. After I graduated, I started a business that is now a non-profit organisation supporting more than ten thousand school-leavers each year. It took around five years before I dared pay myself even the £23,000 that Augar proposes should be the repayment threshold.
Value, apparently, does not mean supporting business or social enterprise.
My ex-flatmate’s degree was poor value. He got a double first from Oxford and eventually became a successful writer, but he spent many years doing rubbish temping jobs to give himself time to forge his craft, secure an agent and get a break. He wrote for the stage, radio, television and film – the British film industry alone is larger contributor to the UK economy than our car industry, but many of its workers earn little until, after many years, they might get established.
Value, apparently, does not mean investment in the creative arts.
Another friend volunteered for charities for two years before getting a poorly paid job in Bosnia helping refugees after the war. She went on to work in the developing world for the benefit of humanity, before coming back to the UK to qualify as a nurse.
Value, apparently, does not mean doing a job that helps others more than it helps you.
Students without the privilege of social capital – denied by their class, their race, their disabilities or their gender – earn, on average, thousands of pounds less than their more favoured peers.
Meanwhile, many students – young and mature – attend their local university or college because their communities have been economically tattered. Study is their best hope of stitching together a fearless future. When they graduate, if they continue to live alongside their neighbours, to rebuild those communities, they won’t earn what they could by digging deeper the divisions in society instead.
Value, apparently, does not mean battling regional and social inequality.
On the other hand, when I graduated, a fellow student from my university went to work for Lehman Brothers. We all envied his starting salary. I remember wondering about him in 2008.
Value, apparently, does include producing nothing but wealth for those who already have it.
A concept without value
This idea of value has no value. Salary is a poor measure of value. But, for want of a better definition, the Augar Review builds a buttress to the edifice, fortifying this teetering notion of value. Even Augar’s many laudable recommendations on access, lifelong learning and alternative pathways serve only to reinforce rather than rebut, because they whitewash the stains rather than tackling their cause.
Augar steers the discourse about student funding down the well-travelled road of counting what’s measured, rather than measuring what counts.
The earnings are the outputs and the inputs are the costs. Value, however, is to cost as age is to age at birth. Cost alone tells you only about affordability, but value depends on whether you are affording a home or a hamster.
We have no good measures for the value of post-18 education and Augar has shrunk from the task of defining it and finding valid ways to account it. When we resort to poor proxies instead, all we do is bolster those false goals and undermine what we hold truly dear.
Whenever you cannot measure value, look to your values instead.
We cannot fund our post-18 education system without a clear understanding of what it is for. It is about better jobs, earning more, but it is about so much more.
To me, education is about cultivating our tomorrows, handing them the tools to survive and to thrive and trusting them to do so.
There are just two certainties about the future: we do not know what it will be; and, whatever it is, there will be change. And so there is one thing that must be common to all post-18 education, one thing that every 18-year old must have to face that future for their own good and for the good of us all: they need the resilience that comes from a rounded set of versatile skills, knowledge and virtues.
Until we have a funding system that puts that as the goal, we will – like Augar, Browne and Dearing – merely be tinkering with the balances to shift the unfairness from the shoulders of taxpayers to students and back again.