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Three HE leaders' first thoughts on Augar

As the sector begins to respond to the report from the post-18 education and funding review panel headed by Philip Augar, HEi-know asked three HE leaders for their initial impressions. Sir Peter Scott, professor of higher education studies at UCL's Institute of Education and former Vice-Chancellor of Kingston University; Dr Rhiannon Birch, head of planning and research at Sheffield University; and Professor Liz Barnes, Vice-Chancellor of Staffordshire University all offered their thoughts.

 

Only one cheer for a “messy compromise” - Peter Scott

The Augar review is clearly a step back from the flawed ‘market’ established in English higher education in 2010 following another report, the Browne review. One cheer, because that ‘market’ is no longer sustainable in either financial or moral terms. It has created a lose-lose situation - spiralling graduate debt and an escalating, and uncontrollable, increase in actual public funding - and it encourages toxic behaviour by universities - grade inflation, rankings game-playing, an explosion of unconditional offers, corporate greed...

But only one cheer. The proposed cut in the maximum fee is a messy compromise. They are still the highest in Europe and among the highest in the world. Relabelling fees as ‘student contributions’ will fool no one. There is no guarantee, despite the panel’s pious hope, the Government will fill the gap by increased public spending. Hand-on-heart who can says universities are a higher priority than the creaking National Health Service or up-against-the-wall local government. Even if the extra money is forthcoming to fill the gap, the panel’s proposal that it should be aligned with the modern industrial strategy and directed to courses that cost most to deliver (STEM presumably) and offer ‘better value to students and taxpayers’ (the highest - financial - ‘rate of return’?) has an ominous ring. Come back ‘manpower planning’ (my use of the old-fashioned gendered term is deliberate), all is forgiven - with an added twist of social privilege. That’s the effect if not the intention.

But the key problem with Augar is the same as with the Browne review a decade ago. If it gets implemented at all (a big ‘if’ in these dog days of Brexit paralysis), like Browne its proposals will be cherry picked by ephemeral politicians and distorted by short-term ideological dogma and political expediency. The core question - whether higher education is a market commodity or a public service - will remain unanswered.

 

Augar could usher in a more fluid and flexible post-18 system -- Rhiannon Birch

Reading the initial coverage and Augar Report, there's an interesting balance between the inevitable focus on funding and other issues. In the tradition of reporting on Government reviews of education, much of the commentary has gone straight for the money and rightly so: the funding package is what makes it possible to deliver high quality education. But is this the most significant aspect of the recommendations? I'd highlight two areas which are less likely to be considered in the wider commentary.

First, module-based funding and a lifelong learning allowance. Government has toyed with credit transfer and accumulation to build flexibility for students in the past but hasn't backed this up with a suitable funding model. This combination could encourage flexible provision enabled by technologies such as MOOCs and Blockchain-based student records systems to track credit and award qualifications.

Second, the report encourages a more fluid post-18 education system balancing FE and HE, academic and technical/vocational qualifications. Streamlining and improving the quality of Level 4 and 5 qualifications would create a ladder of post-18 education while widening the remit of the OfS would create a single, consistent regulatory approach across the FE:HE split.

The funding recommendations, if implemented, will have short-term impact. But there is potential for significant foundational shifts which could underpin a new approach to tertiary education. If Government pursued efficient, consistent and flexible provision it could create a post-18 education system catering for the full range of potential students. That could be the real long-term impact of Augar.

 

Good and bad news for both universities and students – Liz Barnes

Greater participation in education at every level and at any age is encouraged in the report, with no proposed grade cap for access to loans. It begins to address the major skills gap for the young people that do not go to university, where almost 40 per cent of 25 year olds are qualified to level 2 or less. It provides for a lifetime learning loan allowance with access to loans for fees and maintenance and for lower income students a maintenance grant of £3,000 per year. This will be applied to bites of learning as small as 30 credits enabling a flexible approach to study.

Implementation is probably going to take at least 3 years and meanwhile the message is clear. There will be no increase in funding during that time. We therefore face a period of austerity. Beyond this there is good and bad news.

The funding level for student fees loans will be ‘pegged’ at £7,500. The Government should make up any resource gap for high cost subjects and for students from poorer backgrounds, recognising higher support costs. Of concern,  there is still an emphasis on maintaining a basic level fee for any courses that are deemed to be ‘poor value for money’ as assessed through graduate prospects, longitudinal educational outcomes (LEO) and retention. However, LEO data is not yet sufficiently sophisticated to tell the whole story. Of major concern is any reduction in our overall funding that may emerge.

This may sound like all good news for the student, but the repayment period for the loan will be extended to 40 years from 30 and therefore the amount they pay back is unlikely to be significantly reduced. However, the interest rate on the loan whilst they are studying should be at the basic interest rate as opposed to the commercial rate.

Ultimately the success of delivery on this will be dependent on the Government delivering on the replacement funding to protect our world class University sector.

Philip Augar
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