The Augar report is 210 pages long. I would place a large amount of money that the eleven people running for Prime Minister of this country will read, at best, a one page brief on it, written in haste, by a non specialist aide.
I have seen similar processes from the inside. When I was in government, I remember writing a submission (a memo) to a Secretary of State. It was on quite a complex issue, and I tried hard to summarise it. From memory, it ended up ten pages long. About a week later, I saw a copy of the submission in the Minister’s office. It had a post-it note on it from the Private Secretary, who had scribbled his summary of the issue, in approximately twelve words. The Minister had applied a tick. The decision was made.
Politics is a game
It’s right that the sector pores over this important report carefully. But let’s not lose sight of how the politics of this works.
The government’s formal position is that “it will consider the recommendations and conclude its overall review of post-18 education and funding.” Although not explicitly, this probably means in the forthcoming spending review.
But as the government’s own press notice points out, the review was launched by May, Hammond, and Hinds. In a month or two, none of those three will be in post and, presumably, neither will Chris Skidmore. It’s also not clear if the spending review pencilled in for this Autumn is deliverable, having not even started yet, and given that it would be due shortly after the October 31 Brexit deadline or possible next extension. My best guess remains that it won’t be, and (possible autumn General Election notwithstanding), government will effectively roll over current budgets for a year, and then do a full spending review for autumn 2020.
So what does the politics look like, both for the next couple of months, and then under a new PM?
Unlikely to be a Tory hot topic
There are five serious contenders running who have a high chance of making it through to the final stages to choose the next Prime Minister – Johnson, Raab, Hunt, Javid, and Gove. The remainder are realistically only running to boost their own profile, or to make sure their version of Conservatism is heard. But because of that, they’re actually the ones more likely to make policy pronouncements.
Nevertheless, I’d expect higher education to figure very lightly during the campaign. The Tory electorate isn’t really interested in higher education. More than half of Tory members are over 55 and over a third are over 66. Any children they have are likely to have gone through tertiary education already. 86 per cent of them are ranked in AB1 social class, and they earn on average considerably more than the average wage. The questions about debt, and future career prospects, don’t weigh that heavily on their minds.
From the candidates’ point of view, Augar also offers an easy way out. The serious contenders will know that they don’t want to box themselves in by making rash announcements, and they recognise that a lot of analysis has been done. The biggest safeguard for the sector in the short run is that given that Augar has pronounced so firmly on £7.5k as the new fee level, that it’s hard for a contender to publicly underbid that (though they will be careful not to commit to Treasury making up any difference).
Swaying the minister
But the sector would be wrong to draw comfort from a presumed period of stability. Politicians are, well, political. Public opinion, and the views of specific groups within the public, play very heavily in the decision-making processes of ministers. A higher education sector that simply responds to Augar on technical issues and doesn’t pay heed to where the Tory party and the next Prime Minister is coming from, risks playing the wrong tune.
And the broader dynamics of electoral politics and internal Conservative positioning poses some hard questions for the sector. The Conservative electoral strategy for 2022, partly out of choice and partly out of necessity, is going to be heavily focused on what we can term the post-industrial, aspirant working class and lower middle class (C2 and C1 voters) seats, many of which voted Leave and are in the Midlands and the North. The Tories won a bunch of these seats slightly against the odds in 2015 and 2017 – places like Walsall North, Mansfield, Middlesbrough and South East Cleveland.
It’s no coincidence that May’s speech responding to Augar talked extensively about further education. One of the great “what-ifs” of her premiership is that, had Brexit been resolved swiftly or if she hadn’t called an election in 2017, how much of her time would have been focused on this electoral group. And whilst many of this group go to university, a lot of them don’t – they (or their children) leave school at 18 or do an apprenticeship or go to college. Augar’s key argument that we need a unified tertiary system but that means shifting resources from higher education to further education will play well with this group.
The other element to consider is young people. The Conservative party is currently obsessed with the 18-24 cohort, whom they were relatively competitive with in 2015 but lost by a huge margin in 2017. Given that young turnout is increasing, it’s likely to be the case that whether they continue to break for Corbyn, or move to Lib Dems, or come back to the Tories, will be a decisive factor in the next General Election. As such, the Conservatives want policies for this group – and higher education is one of the areas that is under their control. It’s quicker to execute than building more houses (and less unpopular amongst older voters), and it’s more realistic grounds for them to fight Labour on than climate change.
So come spending review 2020, and in the run up to an election, the issue of fees will come up again. By which point Augar’s £7.5k could look less like a floor, and more like a ceiling.