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Interventionism is suddenly all the rage with the Westminster Conservative government, and higher education is feeling the impact as new policies and legislation are brought to bear on the sector, writes Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of Push and of the Engineering Professors’ Council.
Mike Boxall, an independent researcher and consultant on higher education policies and strategies, and a senior adviser to PA Consulting, considers the emerging post-COVID world and its implications for the future of universities. His blog is based on a paper published recently by PA Consulting, and co-authored with its HE lead, Ian Matthias.
The Augar review panel was right to highlight under-funding of further education, but addressing this should not mean cuts in the higher education budget, argues Dr Joe Marshall, Chief Executive Officer of the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB).
Understanding the real drivers behind the Augar review or predicting how much will see the light of implementation remains to be seen, but the its scope and depth leaves it difficult to ignore. Testimony to this fact has been the number of reaction pieces that have framed their response as at best initial or with strong caveats that more detailed analysis will follow.
Many commend the Augar team for the depth and breadth in which they have grappled with significant and seismic issues. As with all government sponsored reviews, there were constrains on the review team (fiscal neutrality), significant political interest (not just from the now outgoing PM but also from her would be successors), but also on where to draw the boundaries (post-18 is a very, very broad canvas).
Not all of the early leaks and rumours made it into the final report, for which many leaders in the university sector will be thankful for. But there is, as reported in a number of other places, enough to be concerned about if the recommendations are enacted: reduction in tuition fees with no guarantees as to where the funding shortfall will come from; threats around recruitment of students to courses with “poor retention, poor employability and poor long-term earnings”; redirecting the HE capital grant to further education.
It is on the last point that I think the constraints (or pressures) on the review team have pushed elements of the review into a polarised and binary discussion: HE or FE. Clearly in looking at the totality of the Post-18 education system they need to think about ‘the other 50 per cent’ that do not go into higher education. But should this be at the detriment to a system that the review acknowledges is considered to be outstanding across a range of measures (research, teaching, economic, civic).
The fiscal neutrality forces a series of recommendations to rebalance funding or priorities away from HE towards FE. The figures in the report make for stark reading and Augar rightly puts a spotlight on the imbalance. But imbalance does not necessarily mean it needs to be rebalanced. There is a collective effort needed to make the case that more funding is required for further education but not at the expense of the higher education budget.
A binary decision between FE or HE also assumes an absolute delineation between the two. Not just through the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy but in responding to changes in labour markets – universities increasingly partner with and often co-deliver programmes that offer more technical and vocational routes. These partnerships are often rooted in the needs and requirements of particular places. Further and higher education working together to meet the needs of local employers and local populations. One recommendation not visible in the review would have been to encourage more of this to happen rather than reinforcing divisions between a perceived separate two worlds.
As noted above, the Augar review is too substantive a piece of work for both politicians and the sector to ignore. More analysis and interpretation will emerge. The Government will (when it can) offer calls to action when it published its response. But it needs to take up the baton from this review and really consider the needs of a future advanced knowledge economy. We need to create a Post-18 education system truly capable of pushing the best and brightest minds as well as genuinely supporting and empowering others to realise their potential. It is not binary decision. But a simple and powerful AND. We need an education system in which all contribute AND all benefit.
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