Commentators have been broadly focused on the political question of whether a fee cut will be enough to woo younger voters to vote for the Conservative party but there is a much more fundamental question of whether future prospective students will understand the proposals which is missing from the discourse.
At NUS, we welcome the proposed restoration of maintenance grants, and further investment in further education.Equally, we are keen to ensure that the unit of resource for students is maintained through teaching grants. But what about the important role of information, advice and guidance (IAG)?
The absence of IAG outside of schools
IAG isn’t entirely absent from the report. The review highlights the weaknesses in IAG provision particularly pointing the lack of information about technical routes. Augar proposes (recommendation 2.11) that the government’s existing career strategy is expanded nationally to ensure that “every secondary school is able to be part of a careers hub, and that training is available to all careers leaders and that more young people have access to meaningful careers activities and encounters with employers”.
However, there is a clear limitation with this: the recommendation seems to focus too narrowly on schools and gives very little focus on IAG for anyone outside secondary education. This is completely at odds with the ambitious focus on more flexible entry points into further education and higher education, as suggested elsewhere throughout the report. Flexible lifelong learning entitlements and the recommendation that higher education institutions should be able to offer a level four/certification and level five/diploma regardless of whether a full degree has been completed, seem to be targeted more at current undergraduates or individuals who may wish to return too education later in life. The obvious question following this is, where would the IAG be for them?
Decisions, decisions, decisions
The current smorgasbord of provision currently available in the sector is certainly one of its strengths, and greater flexibility within the system is to be welcomed. We know that schools, teachers and parents, for young people in particular can have a huge impact on decisions in post-18 education, yet the current system has changed beyond recognition since the time many of those giving advice were beneficiaries. The current system, let alone the new system proposed, requires well-resourced independent IAG to ensure that prospective applicants are finding the right subjects for them.
However, with the current, and proposed, funding system, the need for IAG to inform decisions is even more acute because of the significant financial implications. Perhaps ironically, the most fundamental question guiding a comparable financial decision “how much will I pay back?”- is completely unanswerable with a repayment plan determined by future earnings, the economy and the possibility of retrospective changes to the repayments. Any attempted answer would have to cover, different types of interest, a cap on repayments, a new moving repayment threshold linked to the median salary for non-graduates as well as a write off in 40 years, all of which are guaranteed to draw you blank stares from 17 year old prospective students. However, there are some questions they will want to know; “Am I entitled to a loan? When might I expect to start paying back? How much money will I be entitled to receive whilst studying?” and a structure should be in place to help students start to answer these questions.
If one was generous there is another IAG recommendation in that the report suggests changing the name of student loans to “student contribution scheme” to make them sound less scary. Regardless of whether you believe the system is based on a “loan”, a “tax” or a contribution, the public perception of high fees and high debt will likely make it difficult for this “rebrand” to cut through, and without high quality IAG it may not do any more to clarify the workings of the system for those considering study options.
Translating policy to practical choices
Perhaps the proposed system is simply too complicated but whilst we have it, it seems a glaring omission from the review not to mention how the system will be translated to prospective students to make meaningful choices. Scrapping of services such as AimHigher and Connexions has stripped out an infrastructure for that support but with the shelf life of skills gets shorter, governments will have to embrace lifelong learning to future-proof their economy and society as a whole. Without IAG accessible to everyone, opportunities will not reach those who need it the most.
Augar was a missed opportunity for fully funded independent IAG but it is something that should be strongly considered by any future implementers of reform – otherwise no matter what the merits of these reforms, students won’t be able to make best use of the system.