One of the most striking features of the Augar panel report is that all its main recommendations are about reversing, wholly or partially, David Cameron and George Osborne-era Conservative policies. The report unwinds the trebling of university tuition fees, the slashing of further education funding, the abolition of student maintenance grants and the use of the market and student choice as the main drivers for higher education funding.
Two of those stem from the last major review of higher education funding, the 2010 Browne Review. The more analytical Augar report could be seen as directly contradicting much of the thrust of the market-oriented Browne report.
All of which tells us something about the odd way that education policy – or perhaps a lot of policy more generally – is shaped in this country.
In the conclusion to her speech at the launch event for the report, Theresa May said that “as we look ahead to the spending review and beyond, I believe the government will need to take very seriously the proposals to boost further education spending and put right the errors of the past, to restore higher education maintenance grants… and to cut tuition fees, so students pay a fairer price for their education.”
She also said that the abolition of maintenance grants – a decision made by Osborne when he was chancellor in Cameron's government – “has not worked”.
The panel report repeatedly signals another about-turn on an issue not addressed by the current prime minister in her speech: the role of the market.
The Browne review heralded the removal of all but a rump of direct grant funding, routing the vast majority of teaching funding through students and their loans. “Their choices will shape the landscape of higher education,” said the Browne report.
The Augar report directly contradicts that, stating that “competition has an important role to play in creating student choice, but, with no steer from government, the social, economic and cultural outcomes are likely to be suboptimal”.
“Post-18 education cannot be left entirely to market forces,” the Augar panel write.
They also note, rather acidly, that the “removal of number controls” – another Osborne policy – “combined with a high fee cap created the conditions for a very competitive market”. That is at the conclusion of a section which describes grade inflation, “lower entry requirements” and unconditional offers as “three aspects of academic practice that could be interpreted as being a consequence of market competition”.
The Augar report wants direct teaching funding returned as a lever to prioritise certain subjects, complaining that “undirected funding has led to an over-supply of some courses at great cost to the taxpayer and a corresponding undersupply of graduates in strategically important sectors”.
As Augar said at the launch event: “We believe government should have greater control over taxpayer support to higher education.”
All of which leaves an unflattering portrait of the Browne review: a quick and dirty fix delivering austerity measures for Cameron and Osborne that left the student finance system overloaded and in one hell of a mess.
But why are there so very many apparent “errors of the (recent) past” in further and higher education policy?
Higher education policy in England seems to turn abruptly every few years, from Labour’s introduction of tuition fees combined with direct public funding, to the Cameron-era trebling of fees and slashing of public funding, to the shifts that Augar could herald and – if a Labour government comes to power – the potential for fees to be abolished entirely.
How do other countries with respected education systems, such as Germany or the Netherlands, go about making policy? It probably involves something radical like reaching political consensus on a strategy and then following that strategy.
Such qualities have not been in evidence in recent UK education policymaking, and the manner in which the Augar review came into being does not offer any hope that they will flourish in the near future.
May announced the review because she was in a bit of a panic about the perceived electoral impact of Labour’s policy to abolish fees, so needed her own fix on fees. Or, if you believe former education secretary Justine Greening’s account, May was alarmed by the Department for Education’s plan to look at abolishing fees and introducing a graduate tax, so railroaded through her own review to squash that plan.
The trouble now is that the Augar review comes into being just as its creator is about to leave the political stage, leaving huge questions over whether the key recommendations will ever come to be implemented. What a strange way to go about shaping policy on such a crucial matter for the nation’s future.
Augar stressed at the launch that the main focus of the panel’s report was in the call for a “refunded, reformed” further education sector, for more investment in the further education colleges that are “neglected national assets”. The report is a serious attempt to develop a strategy for a future tertiary education sector and the £7,500 fee cap (which has the look of another quick fix) should not distract attention from the philosophical shifts that it signals.
But whether the review can escape the turbulent politics of its creation remains to be seen. Political consensus around its plans for further education might be achievable, but there seems little or no prospect of a consensus on university funding. The “errors of the future” are probably just around the corner.