Augar review’s ‘dumb’ failings spotlight policymaking flaws

Absence of political leadership, consensus building and links to ‘levelling up’ agenda seen as weaknesses of Westminster government’s post-18 review

February 2, 2021
Man  soaking wet as he runs through Wiltshire holding a St Georges Flag.
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The Augar review’s failures come down to its genesis in “dumb policy and appalling politics”, to the absence of political leadership and consensus building, plus detachment from wider agendas on place, according to political and policy figures.

The Westminster government last month published an “interim response” to the review of post-18 education in England led by Philip Augar, saying that the “final conclusion” to the review will come at the next Comprehensive Spending Review.

The government will consider changes to student loan repayments and the introduction of student number controls using an entry tariff threshold in a consultation in spring, it said.

If the spending review were to happen in autumn 2021, the review will have dragged on for four years since it was first heralded by then prime minister Theresa May in October 2017.

Ms May set up the review in response to the perceived popularity of Labour’s 2017 election pledge to abolish tuition fees, but it subsequently took on a wider aim to “rebalance” away from higher education to further education. The review’s headline recommendation on higher education – to lower fees from £9,250 to £7,500 – was not mentioned in the interim government response.

Lord Johnson of Marylebone, who was universities minister when Ms May set out on the review process, said: “It was commissioned with a short-term political objective, to deliver the headline, ‘Theresa May slashes fees to £7,500 or £6,500’.”

But it was “quickly realised” that was a “regressive policy” with benefits only for high earners who would pay off loans in full, and would “destabilise university finances”, he added.

“It was a really dumb policy and it was appalling politics,” Lord Johnson continued, because the Conservatives “couldn’t compete politically with free [tuition] by lopping £1,750 off it”.

Jonathan Simons, head of the education practice at policy consultancy firm Public First, said that the review highlighted “a weakness of policymaking generally – you need to have acknowledgement of a problem, strong political leadership, alignment of key departments, [and] enough political capital to push” on a policy.

The “absence” of these factors in the Augar process was why “we may not see Augar implemented even at this CSR, is my guess”, he added.

Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, said that the Augar response and more pressingly the skills White Paper published alongside it missed key links “to employment, industrial strategy, R&D and so on, and Augar wasn’t really asked to look at them”. That was “a deficiency in the brief he was set at the time”, Professor Westwood added.

As the government moves towards the spending review it must resolve the “tension” between its hostility to universities driven by concerns about “low value” courses or free speech, and its commitment to “level up” in the UK regions.

Ultimately, Boris Johnson “can’t have it both ways” and “if you limit [student] numbers and cut fees/income to Teesside University then you are taking money out of the regional economy as well as life chances and undermining one of the few institutional assets you’ve got” in the regions, Professor Westwood continued.

But Lord Johnson said that “sensible” Augar recommendations beyond fees mean that its “longer-term contribution is, I think, going to be quite significant”.

It could contribute, he added, to the advent of “a more flexible system of tertiary education, with more movement between FE and HE, with more modular funding that enables people to store up credit, move [credit] from one institution to another and dip in and out of education over the course of their working lives”.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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