The headlines talked about a fee cap of £7,500 for undergraduate tuition, and it will be the headlines which secure the enduring myth of Augar 2019. Its brief was to review all of post-18 higher education, but it has been portrayed as a panicked response to Labour’s promise to young people to abolish tuition fees, and perhaps, in this spirit, it feels very much like a report on funding rather than policy generally.
Augar is not just the work of Augar, of course. It is Robinson, Peck, Crewe Wolf and De Rojas together with their mix of expertise in HE, FE, vocational education and the tech industry. If the emphasis on funding stems from the chairmanship of Philip Augar who was a former equities trader, much of the rest appears to be a steer towards FE for the majority of 18 year olds, perhaps reflecting the influence of Baroness Alison Wolf, author of Does Education Matter: Myths about Education and Economic Growth.
It is important to mention some very welcome recommendations from the report. In many ways it marks a return to some of the assumptions of the post-Robbins consensus on the funding of higher education, albeit with a very firm commitment to the student (and parental) contribution. There is a call for the return of maintenance grants as well as loans, a commitment to a four-year entitlement to FE/HE financing available to all, and a recommendation to cease charging interest on loan amounts accrued during the period of study. Another welcome reversal is an end to ELQ restrictions (whereby a person cannot receive funding for a qualification of equivalent or lower-level qualifications). Also celebrated are the call for a return to a (diminished) government teaching grant, but one whose amount is adjusted to reflect the differential costs of certain subjects, although the buck for making this decision is passed to the Office for Students (p.95) – a return to subject banding, perhaps? Suddenly, we seem to be back on the familiar territory of decades earlier, and led there by those most vociferous champions of change, higher education leaders.
And then there are some ruptures with the trends of recent years. There’s a proposal to make funding available for ‘unbundled’ modules (p.39), so thanks to every course leader who has been compelled to defend the progression and coherence of their program’s learning objectives. It’s not that I personally ever invested much in that, but I despise the way these apparently essential tenets of ‘accountability’ are so easily dispatched without mention or consultation. ‘Badging’ and micro-credentialing do not constitute an education.
Despite the title of Wolf’s volume, the report has plenty to say about the value of HE and FE to the economy. Ninety-eight mentions of value according to Johnny Rich. And despite its disavowals of marketization in HE (p.78), there is strict adherence to the language of the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) of competition, choice, and value for money. Anyone excited to find mentions of strengthening governance will be disappointed to find that it usually collocates with ‘financial’.
The proposed funding model for HE reckons to reduce the loan write off (RAB charge) from 45% to 25% by introducing a longer period of repayment. This will be extended from 30 to 40 years to benefit from a longer period when the graduate is at maximum earnings. But this assumes a very male-centered career trajectory and inscribes a norm whereby nobody can retire before their early sixties, let alone work flexibly in order to care for parents or grandchildren. Significantly, it doesn’t allow any time for the graduate to save money for their own children’s higher education.
And in return for finagling this saving, the report’s authors assume that government will cover the shortfall created by a reduction in the tuition fee. That seems to betoken the kind of faith in government largesse which stems from the experience of those who have benefitted from it. I doubt there is much of that kind of faith among the under-40s.
Much is made of degree apprenticeships. There could be no more fervent endorsers of those then the university managers avidly siphoning off the apprenticeship levy for their own MBAs. At the same time, perhaps for other people’s children, there is the wish to graduate many more students with level 4 and 5 qualifications, ignoring the fact that the currency for both students and employers for 30 years has been an honours degree. The justification for the downgrade, paradoxically, is that there is a need for more technically-qualified workers. Such workers can only emerge from FE, according to Augar. Apparently, you can just uncouple the association between social mobility and an honours degree, an assumption which, the report says, should be subject to a bit of questioning. In any case, for those under 25, access to financial support for level 6 (honours degree level) will be contained with a new demand for high enough attainment at levels 4 and 5. We can only speculate about the risk to students’ levels of stress, and the corresponding pressure on staff, to ensure they attain the necessary grades to progress. If this is a money-saving measure, perhaps the toll on mental health services should feature in another column on the balance sheet.
And then there are ‘unintended consequences for subject provision that are not aligned with the government’s Industrial Strategy’ (p.91) and degree courses which are unlikely to result in ‘good value for taxpayer money’ (p.84). When you get past reparsing the peculiarities of grammatical concord and attribution by apposition, this turns out to be code for concern that we are producing graduates whose reward is not monetary. Or at least not monetary enough to pay back the entirety of their tuition loans. In particular, the report chides whomever is listening at this point, that the current funding methodology has resulted in an over-investment in arts and humanities at the expense of STEM (p.84) The remedy appears to be to prevent these students from progressing from levels 4/5 to level 6, which will presumably depress their earnings even further.
The scale of the damage done by market extremism and individual value for money discourse is laid out on page 191 where the case for reinstatement of maintenance grants is supported by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, the Commons, Educational Select Committee, Hepi, and the Intergenerational Foundation. The understanding that the young are entitled to support and opportunity for their education runs throughout the report. I just wish the authors had made the case for intergenerational equity more unconditionally.
There are some quite radical changes which will have impact on university autonomy. Yet another plank of academic freedom is scythed away when accusations are made that grade inflation has been too great to suggest plausibly that it is caused by student performance (p78). I always marvel at commentators who insist on evidence and accountability from universities that their teaching and learning resources are all constantly improving, and then press the fire alarm when those learning outcomes improve. To find a group of vice-chancellors and other senior educators saying it is simply perverse.
But then outcomes don’t always mean learning outcomes as we already know from the semantic shape-shifting in HERA. On page 75 we read that ‘there is a wide variation in spend on subjects grouped in the same funding categories, at apparently similar institutions, with no known correlation to outcomes.’ Outcomes in this instance, as indeed in most usages within the report, equals graduate earnings as indicated by Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data. It was always inevitable that once LEO data became a metric in assessing the value of higher education, they would become THE metric, but perhaps not in a study which declares itself concerned with ‘economically defined value calculations, not value judgements’ (p.87). Incredibly, on the very same page, the authors admit that earnings data is one of a trio of unreliable metrics which constitute the Teaching Excellence Framework. We already know that graduate salaries are affected by region and correlate more effectively with distance from London than any other variable. But they also vary with social advantage, prior attainment and gender. To pretend that they can be considered a reliable criterion by which to judge the way a university teaches a subject, much less ‘adds value’, is fanciful.
If there is ‘a growing gap between what the labour market demands and what post-18 education supplies’, as Alison Wolf declares, then Augar provides few of the solutions. Wolf is an advocate of vocational education, despite evidence that the landscape of employment continues to shift rapidly. If employers require graduates with sophisticated IT, numeracy, communication and problem-solving abilities; if the current challenge to liberal democracies require an educated electorate with a working knowledge of history, economics and government, as well as world languages, then solutions lie in a much broader-based common curriculum and enhanced degree-level resourcing.
Throughout the report there is a supposition that, even in the face of a huge reduction in the government-allocated teaching grant, universities have had a golden decade of opulence, and that their benefit has come at the expense of the withering of FE. As a consequence, Augar recommends that HE should absorb a freeze to fund investment in FE and apprenticeships (p.92,) in addition to the government funding additional capital investment for FE. In actuality, funding for HE has been provided by enrolled students who have been charged the full cost of their teaching. Surely the answer is to introduce a sustainable model of funding for FE and HE, and for both to have considerable public subsidy?
Sadly, this is not what Augar recommends. The authors fail to state unambiguously the case for supporting and sustaining the UK’s universities which form its repositories of knowledge and its crucibles of learning. Instead the contagion of HERA persists as far as affirming the right of the Office for Students to refuse to bail out institutions which fall into financial difficulties, or as the report writes, echoing HERA discourse and previous ministers for higher education, risking the ‘moral hazard’ of ‘bailing out’ ‘failing institutions’ (p.98).
Augar has thrown universities to the wolves of a rather rigged market at this point. Nobody – neither staff nor student – can enter a university with any certainty that their career or course of study will be fulfilled without interruption or derailment.