Augar response? Fee cuts? Minimum qualifications? It’s all about timing

David Kernohan isn't a super-forecaster, but he thinks that time may be the sector's best defence against a damaging and ill-conceived Augar response

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Here at Wonkhe we use all kinds of sophisticated approaches to predicting the future course of policy in higher education. In this case, I’d like to use a five-year calendar.

We’ve confirmation that England’s basic and higher fee caps would remain at their current level for the 2022-23 academic year. With applicants already applying to courses it is difficult to imagine that anything else would be the case – both providers and students need to know about changes to these fee levels far in advance.

And we’ve also had confirmation that lifelong loan entitlements will begin in 2025 – assumedly for the 2025-26 academic year. The detail of this policy is expected in a consultation now thought to form a part of one of two incoming white papers – either one on “levelling up” or the November higher education one we revealed the existence of in Monday’s briefing.

A white paper is (technically) a consultation in itself, and in this case, it is widely expected to lead to new primary legislation to operationalise the LLE. It would be surprising to see the various consultations close, analysis of responses performed, and the entire new piece of legislation pass through both houses by the end of this parliamentary session (April 2022), so you’d imagine this is one to look forward to in the 2022-23 session.

I’ve written about the far-reaching implications of the LLE and related policies before. These are fundamental changes to the way post-compulsory education is funded – ministers (and the bill team at DfE) will have a lot of work to do.

All of this means we have two academic years during which a response to Augar could be operationalised ahead of the switch to the LLE – 2023-24 and 2024-25. But there is something else that is likely to happen in this time period. A general election.

Oh no not another one

The Conservative government needs to hold on to, fundamentally, two groups of voters

  • The traditional conservatives in the shires and home counties
  • The “red wall” conservatives in more deprived areas in the north

The first of these are well used to their children proceeding directly from school to university – the second group have increasingly begun to expect this for their children. Levelling up, after all, is a lot to do with aspiration.

The higher education rumours around the Augar response is all about limiting expenditure, but the LLE will likely increase spending on post-compulsory education overall. There is no evidence that young people are keen to turn away from university to vocational alternatives (or even part-time study), and we add to this the legions retraining or upskilling via access to the student loan system.

Both groups of Conservative voters would be affected by a reduction in university places, by changes to student repayment rates, and by a minimum entry tariff. These policies are anti-aspiration, and arguably (well-off families can afford private tuition, and to support children during and after university) anti-levelling up. So the Conservatives go into an election promising to limit social mobility, limit access to provision that generally leads to higher pay over a lifetime, and have an impact on the many towns where the university is the largest employer and drives the local economy. This is a difficult doorstep sell.

And the LLE total available amount per person is linked to the level of four years of higher education fees. It may be good campaigning to cut the most visible aspect of an insanely expensive student/graduate funding and repayment scheme, but taking money out of the retraining budget of a former steelworker from Redcar looks very much like a bad move.

Given all of the above, it must be tempting for the government not to make changes to higher education funding for the two academic years available, and tie in any changes with the “big bang” launch of the LLE in the next parliament. This would coincide with the first possible year for a revised university application process (my money being on a post-qualification admissions consultation response that takes the UCAS advice on timing and punts the problem off to a working group – ideally led by a domain expert like, say, Mary Curnock Cook).

I’ve gone the long way round here, but I’m increasingly thinking that the Augar response (in HE terms at least) is a busted flush, that 2025-26 is the new year zero, and there is vanishingly little point in making sweeping systemic changes to funding or eligibility before then.

4 responses to “Augar response? Fee cuts? Minimum qualifications? It’s all about timing

  1. I’m inclined to agree with this.

    The detail of the LLE, particularly eligibility (ie constraints on either a course or applicant basis) will be complex if different for ‘standard’ UG courses. How would it work that it became ‘harder’ (qualifications or cost) to get on a PT L4/5 HTQ course than on a FT BA. There are issues about it becoming ‘easier’ too. We saw from 2012 there were major issues when PT routes were not thought through, the reverse applies now.

    Any ‘big bang’ this side of an election seems brave.

  2. “ the November higher education one we revealed the existence of in Monday’s briefing.”

    The word revealed is doing a lot in this sentence. You can’t reveal something that doesn’t exist. Generously you could say “guessed”

  3. This November HE white paper the writer was so confident was a thing is really leaving it late isn’t it…

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