All corners of the sector have had their say on the Augar review of post-18 education and funding and, while a lot of the responses from mission groups and representative bodies included a call for funding to be increased to make up for a cut to the tuition fee cap, there was a marked difference in the priorities and issues raised by those representing different types of institutions.
The main areas of contention were the greater focus on technical education and lifelong learning and the progressivity of the proposed changes.
There was not as much difference as perhaps you might expect between the sector’s chosen focal points and those of the media. Papers and news sites were split between recommendations – the recommendation of a fee cut to £7,500 was picked up by the BBC and the Telegraph, while The Times and the Mail led with the extension of the loan repayment term. The Guardian and the Independent, along with TES, focused on the reinstatement of means-tested maintenance grants. The political context, in particular the Prime Minister’s support for the review was of interest to iNews, the Economist, Politics Home and City AM. The report’s support for the further education (FE) sector was not widely prioritised, other than in the Financial Times and in FE Week.
Focus on the wins
The Association of Colleges commended the review’s proposals for tackling stagnating social mobility head on and urged media not to focus on the tuition fee cap at the expense of the report’s support for further education. NUS president Shakira Martin praised the report’s emphasis on further education and proposals to reintroduce maintenance grants. Damian Hinds spoke of a “bias” in favour of higher education, and agreed that some rebalancing was needed in favour of further education. GuildHE and Independent HE welcomed the report’s emphasis on boosting lifelong learning.
Alex Proudfoot, chief executive of Independent HE expressed concern that the panel “failed to note the existence and contribution of independent higher education providers who are not the HEIs, FECs and ITPs identified in the report”, suggesting that this “reflects poorly on [the panel’s] understanding of the sector as a whole.”
Meanwhile, the Institute of Student Employers was worried about “signs that funding for degree apprenticeships should be curtailed”, arguing that changing the rules at this stage “makes a mockery” of the government’s position that the levy is “employer-led”.
A progressive system?
Tim Bradshaw, CEO of the Russell Group welcomed the reinstatement of (some) maintenance grants, the removal of real interest rates applied to loans during study and the focus on better communication of the funding system. However, he raised the concern that the “overall impact of the proposed reforms will be to place a greater burden on graduates on low and middle incomes”. The Sutton Trust called for students from the lowest income backgrounds to accrue the least amount of debt. Martin Lewis of Money Saving Expert said that the recommendation to reintroduce maintenance grants, along with the cutting of the tuition fee cap together make the proposed system “more regressive than the current one.”
Institute for Fiscal Studies’ senior research economist Jack Britton said that the proposed changes would benefit the highest earning graduates the most, leaving lower and middle-earning graduates “squeezed”. According to Britton, this is the cost of the move towards a more tightly regulated system and more control over government spending on HE put forward by the panel.
In a brief statement, Office for Students chair Michael Barber called the report “thoughtful and important”. Hinds also reiterated the point he made ahead of the review’s publication about the need for the sector to encourage courses that are of “high-value” to students and taxpayers over “low-value” ones.
The Higher Education Policy Institute’s Nick Hillman described the recommendations as “sensible” while questioning whether the report’s recommendations would be followed through given the current political environment. The University Alliance’s Vanessa Wilson was also critical of whether there was sufficient “money, legislative space or political impetus” for the report, suggesting it could be “dead on arrival”.
Universities Scotland warned that changes to the English fee regime would have an impact across the border. Universities Wales welcomed the review’s consideration of “policies already in place in Wales” including rebalancing funding across different levels of education. Universities Wales’ spokesperson added: “We expect full dialogue with the devolved administrations to take place before any government response is issued.”