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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.
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The government should rule out variable fees and restricting university access for lower grade students, according to a new report.
Ahead of the publication of the much-anticipated Augar Review, the Education Policy Institute study looks at the options for post 18 funding reform, and considers the likely impact, cost and consequences of the funding choices being considered.
It rejects the idea of a minimum UCAS tariff, unless robust evidence can be collected that proves that the young people affected would be better off pursuing alternative education or training pathways.
It recommends that tuition fees remain in place but concludes that an across-the-board lowering of fees, offset by varied increases in teaching grants to re-weight subject funding, would be easier to implement than a system of subject-specific variable fees.
The report, Post-18 Education and Funding: Options for the government review, by researchers at the Institute, whose director is David Laws, a former Liberal Democrat education minister under the Coalition Government, also makes recommendations on how to tackle the crisis in part-time study.
If the government rejects an across-the-board reduction in fees, a teaching grant to lower tuition fee levels for part-time students should be introduced, it said. Money could be saved by means-testing the grant and limiting its application to fields of study with high returns or with strong labour market demand.
In contrast to many higher education commentators, the Institute argues against restoring the maintenance grant because of the lack of “clear evidence” that its abolition has hit applications from low income students.
Researchers also point out that the financial benefit of restoring grants would only accrue to high earners, as the bottom 60 per cent of graduate earners fail to repay their debt before it is written off.
For young people pursuing further study outside higher education, the report recommends that maintenance loans should be made available to overcome barriers to 19-23-year-olds who are studying for first full level 3 qualifications.
The cost of £200 million to £360 million would be worthwhile given the earning premium accrued to these students, the report concludes.
It also recommends that the government introduce further Equivalent and Lower Qualification (ELQ) restriction exemptions in fields of study with high returns or strong labour market demand.
The University and College Union (UCU) welcomed suggestions in the report on part-time study and its rejection of minimum grade requirements but said there was a case for scrapping fees.
Paul Cottrell, the UCU acting general secretary, said: "The prime minister called the Augar Review because the current system was so politically toxic. However, we have heard little in the leaks that suggests the review is looking at the sort of radical alternatives that would make life easier for students and guarantee funding for our colleges and universities.
“We do not agree that the cost of abolishing fees means that the government should reject the idea. Education is worth investing in and we need to develop a system that ensures big business finally pay its fair share. A new Business Education Tax, which reverses cuts to corporation tax since 2010, would allow fees to be scrapped while ensuring that big companies finally contribute properly towards the supply of graduates upon which they rely.”
John Cope, CBI head of education and skills policy, said that continued delays to the publication of the Augar Review has left businesses, universities and colleges increasingly unable to plan ahead and created uncertainty over fees, funding and student support.
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