Now that the ink has dried on the the Augar review panel’s report on post-18 education the 53 recommendations, 200+ pages of commentary and reams of supporting data have been analysed, scrutinised and commented on by many interested parties.
In the coming months the next Prime Minister will need to decide the extent to which they want to progress the recommendations of a review so closes linked with his predecessor and how these fit with their vision of successful, modern Britain.
For universities, the panel’s observations and recommendations can be divided in to three baskets:
- the positive recommendations that will improve post-18 education
- the recommendations that have a serious risk of negative outcomes
- and the fair challenges to universities, that we need to address
Firstly, the positives…
I welcome the proposals to encourage more people to undertake post-18 qualifications – to grow the number of people doing level 2 and 3 qualifications and improve funding for levels 4 and 5. It’s right that we aim for more of the UK population to study at higher levels. Employers are clear they want more employees with intermediate and higher levels, including more graduates and post-graduates to meet future skills needs.
The focus on encouraging flexible learning is welcome, to allow more people can benefit from higher level learning. The proposed introduction of a lifelong learning allowance could enable more people to access higher education in a way that suits their circumstances.
I was also pleased to see the panel recommending the reintroduction of means-tested maintenance grants. It is something that Universities UK have long calling for and I hope that this is taken forward by government.
Students repeatedly tell us that living costs - the pound in their pocket during their studies – are a significant worry. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds often work long hours part-time with a negative impact on their studies. Maintenance grants will make a real difference. It’s important that Government now carefully considered the quantum of grants and how they are targeted to ensure they have the desired impact.
The suggested reduction in the loan interest rate students pay whilst studying is also a positive step.
Secondly, the significant risks…
Although the panel no doubt had good intentions, there are certain recommendations that I fear could lead to unintended consequences for social mobility and skills.
The review recommends cutting tuition fees from £9,250 a year to £7,500. Our analysis shows that this would result in a £1.8 billion reduction in funding for universities. It is helpful that the review has recommended that the cut in funding arising from reducing tuition fees should be made up in full by the Government. But in the current political and fiscal climate – this is a big fiscal ask. And a significant risk.
Should the Government not fully make up the funding gap this would have a negative impact on students, the economy and local communities. Funding cuts could lead to fewer staff, larger class sizes, poorer labs and libraries and less choice and student support. If fees are cut, it is vital that the panel’s recommendation to protect the unit of resource for universities by replacement teaching grant is supported by government.
There are some recommendations in the report that could have a negative impact on social mobility, and I would urge Ministers to carefully assess their potential impact before rushing ahead with implementing them.
The current system is not perfect, but as the report acknowledges, it is progressive. In 2017, 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas in England were 82% more likely to enter higher education than in 2006.
The proposed removal of loan support for students studying foundation years is a big concern. Foundation years are important for social mobility. They enable students who need extra support before progressing to a degree, to adapt to university culture, providing opportunities to do this on campus. Over the past three years the number of mature students from disadvantaged backgrounds taking foundation years has increased by around 40% each year with a high proportion (79%) then progressing to full degrees. In 2017-18 47% of English entrants to foundation years for first degree courses were from a BME background (compared to 30% on non-foundation years.
It is also important that government carefully assesses the impact of changes to loan repayment terms. Proposed changes would increase the amount that some graduates would repay. Whilst I recognise that this makes the package more fiscally attractive to government, it is important to ensure that changes do not provide a disincentive for some groups to choose to study at higher levels.
I am also concerned about the recommendation to remove funding support for degree apprenticeships for those who have already undertaken a degree. Degree apprenticeships provide an attractive option for employers and students to upskill. The Government should be looking at policies to increase the uptake, not restrict it.
The implications of the report for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland needs fuller consideration. It is clear from universities in the devolved nations that the recommendations could have significant implications for them and on student mobility across the four nations.
The report also poses several important and legitimate challenges to the sector that the panel have highlighted. There are four areas which Universities UK will be taking forward new work to address.
Firstly, universities need to work with Government to consider how we develop and enable a system that supports lifelong learning - identifying current barriers, proposing solutions, and addressing the practical issues on delivering a credit-based system and lifelong loans.
Secondly, we need a vision for universities’ role in delivering level 4 and 5 - to include identifying opportunities for universities to grow their role and strengthening partnerships with FE to meet skills needs.
Thirdly, we need to rise to the challenge of properly defining ‘value’ for students and supporting universities to address value concerns. This must include a more nuanced definition of value, beyond just salary outcomes, and considering how this can be measured.
Fourthly, work is needed to evidence the steps universities are taking to promote efficiency, improve understanding of a university cost base and promote further efficiency.
There remains much work to be done to understand the full impact of the report’s recommendations: how they interconnect, how much they would cost, and whether they would produce the results intended by the panel. A period of consultation with a broad range of stakeholders should now happen - including with stakeholder in the devolved nations.
As Ministers and parliamentarians consider which of the panel’s recommendations should be evolved into policy proposals, I suggest there are three tests they should apply:
- Will the policy have a positive impact on access to higher education? Including supporting those from poorer backgrounds to succeed.
- Will the policy improve the quality of higher-level education?
- Will the policy increase the positive impact of universities and colleges locally, nationally and globally? Including plugging the nation’s skills gaps.
Meeting these tests will ensure that any reforms enhance our post-18 education sector to the benefit of students, the economy and society.
Chief Executive, Universities UK