This blog sets out some initial thoughts and reactions on the proposals, and
assesses the extent to which the report addresses some of the key issues raised
by universities during the course of the review.
Many reviews and reports that
have gone before have only looked at parts of the system in isolation, so a
comprehensive overview is refreshing, given the challenges the country faces on
productivity, skills and the changing economy. The review’s focus on rebooting
lifelong learning and the skills pipeline is particularly important: the
emphasis on enhancing opportunities for re-entering education at levels 2 and 3,
and addressing supply and meeting demand for qualifications at levels 4 and 5,
is much needed. Further and higher education can both provide high-quality
provision at levels 4 and 5, and the proposals to stimulate this present a real
opportunity, and are good for social mobility. The challenge will be to ensure
that as the number of better educated people at levels 2, 3, 4 and 5 grows, individuals
are still able to progress through the system onto level 6 and beyond.
The proposal for increased
flexibility in the system will also help to address the call
by UUK and the CBI on the need to create more opportunities for
flexible learning. There are good, ambitious proposals in the report, but implementing
them will take some work – particularly the necessary credit system that would
need to support a more flexible funding system, and demand patterns will need
to be understood. We shouldn’t underestimate the scale of this challenge, and the
fact that the government will need to work closely with the sector, regulators
and others to make this happen.
The most notable recommendation is, of course, the proposed cut to
tuition fees, to £7,500 per year, with the overall per student unit of funding
protected in cash terms. The rationale is for no student to pay more than the
reasonable cost of their course, and ensure better targeting of taxpayer
investment. These may be legitimate political questions for the panel to address,
but the key issues for universities will be whether the proposed funding gap is
made up by government in full, and how this is allocated. If it isn’t made up
in full the damage to the sector would be significant. Quality and the student experience
would be undermined, and it would damage the overall ambition set out by the
Augar panel to bolster our post-18 funding system.
The other risk with the
proposed funding changes is that increased direct government support comes with
more strings attached. Some may say that is legitimate and I wouldn’t argue
against accountability, but centrally-controlled higher education systems
perform less well, are less responsive to changing economic needs, and are less
likely to innovate. A critical test for these proposals will be the extent to
which they undermine the autonomy of our higher education sector.
In our contribution to the
panel we were particularly concerned that the overall system should be
progressive and support social mobility. The current system is not perfect, but
as acknowledged in the report it is progressive and has been good for
access and participation. In 2017, 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged
areas in England were 82% more likely to enter higher education than in 2006. On
the plus side, the proposals for the reintroduction of means-tested maintenance
grants for students will help those with concerns about living costs. This is
something UUK has called for.
It is also important that the
review moved away from introducing minimum entry requirements for entry to
higher education. This would have damaged opportunity for those could benefit
from higher education despite lower prior attainment, many of whom come from disadvantaged
backgrounds. The report does still challenge the sector to act on courses with
poor retention, poor graduate employability, and poor long-term earnings. This is not a straight forward
set of issues, but time to engage, better understand the issues that have been
raised and discuss how the sector can address the challenges presented is helpful.
This includes the extension of the loan write off from 30 to 40
years which, together with a cut to the headline fee and lower interest rates
while studying, will benefit higher earners who will end up paying less than
they currently do. Cutting fees doesn’t necessarily mean all graduates will
have more money in their pockets or end up paying less for their courses in the
long term: the government’s own analysis shows that average earners will in fact pay
more – £12,000 more over their lifetime than under the current system.
There are inevitably trade-offs
in such a complex system, and this is no doubt an attempt by the panel to
introduce welcome changes such as maintenance grants, while keeping an eye on overall costs (for the
higher education proposals our initial analysis suggests overall a cost neutral
package). That said, the implications still need to be fully scrutinised and
discussed, including with the higher education sector in Scotland, Wales and
Northern Ireland and their devolved administrations. The UK’s higher education
system currently enables students from all four nations to freely study in any part
of the UK. The review, although England-focused, risks disrupting cross-border
flows and may result in unintended consequences for student choice across all
four nations of the UK.
This last point brings me to
the need for meaningful public and stakeholder discussion on these proposals. Altogether,
they could provide a strong basis for a coherent and well-evidenced set of
changes, but political cherry picking is a real risk, particularly with the
price tag attached. As a sector we want to continue engaging over how we can
meet the overall ambitions set out in the report, while protecting opportunity
and choice for learners across the UK.
If you accept the review recommendation 3.3 that the HE fee cut be balanced at sector level by more T grant (with some emphasis on high cost subjects), then you are conceding that humanities heavy institutions can bear net funding cuts. I am not saying you are wrong, but conceding that some universities are overfunded does open Pandora's box.