Augar saga ‘no surprise’, says former top DfE civil servant

There was ‘no obvious solution’ on fees, but a more targeted review could ‘take politics out’ of accounting for university funding, says Jonathan Slater

March 30, 2022
Portrait of Jonathan Slater as illustrated in the article
Source: Gov.UK

England’s Augar review was “asked to cover too much territory” when “there wasn’t an obvious solution” on tuition fees, but a targeted review that “takes the politics out” of accounting for university funding could be needed, according to a former Department for Education permanent secretary.

Jonathan Slater, the DfE’s top civil servant between 2016 and 2020, is now a visiting professor at King’s College London’s Policy Institute and at Queen Mary University of London’s Mile End Institute.

Mr Slater’s time in charge at the DfE included the launch of the Augar review of post-18 education, which was first announced in 2017 by Theresa May, who was then prime minister. The review reported in May 2019, and Boris Johnson’s government finally responded to it last month.

When Ms May conceived the idea as a response to the apparent electoral traction gained by then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to scrap fees, Mr Slater recalled consulting former universities minister Lord Willetts, who said that the £9,000 fee system he designed had “enabled more people to go to universities and more funding for universities” and that “the government should be very careful before messing with the new arrangements for those reasons”.

“I had a lot of sympathy for that position,” said Mr Slater. “My advice when the recommendation for a review was being considered was to be very cautious about it. It wasn’t obvious there was a way through that would keep the benefits of the student finance system and lose the disbenefits.”

Even though the Augar review was set up to address concerns about tuition fees, the government response last month ignored its headline recommendation on higher education, that the tuition fee cap be lowered to £7,500, with replacement public funding only for subjects that cost more to teach and have greater “social and economic value”.

Looking back on 2017, given the Treasury’s insistence that there was to be “no more money” for higher education arising from the review and “the prime minister’s looking for a solution to student loans, you’ve got a very, very difficult task indeed for Philip [Augar] and his colleagues”, Mr Slater said. “It’s not surprising…it’s taken [the review panel] as long as it did, and the government as long as it did to respond.”

He added: “I would say at its heart the problem with the review was that the review team was being asked to cover too much territory, in too constrained a way, where for the heart of the subject matter [tuition fees] there wasn’t really an obvious solution.

“But how you account for student loans and what to do about student debt, that is, I think, a more technocratic question and would benefit from having the politics taken out of it rather more, if it were possible to do so.

“Universities will cost pretty much the same people pretty much the same sum of money over their lifetimes whether you have universities funded from general taxation or funded from loans,” and the student loan is more like a “version of income tax” than a loan, he argued.

Student loans and direct public funding of universities are being presented as “completely different to each other” when “actually they are very similar to each other”, and it would be better “if the two political parties were to see that fact for what it is” and agree on the “optimal way of doing things”, he went on.

“It’s not really a political issue,” Mr Slater said. “It’s an issue which is driving politics inappropriately.”

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Reader's comments (2)

Jonathan Slater is correct when he says, "Student loans and direct public funding of universities are being presented as “completely different to each other” when “actually they are very similar to each other”. Given that the loans are in fact not loans but a Government subsidy, on a Poll Tax / fixed amount per head basis, paid for by all taxpayers, that provides funding for a limited number of people to become well paid, needs to be better understood. Those who benefit most, should accept that they should pay more tax on their earnings. The existing loans model should be phased out and we should rethink how Universities are funded. However, the first step is to create a common understanding of what Universities are for, what do we want from our Universities in terms of outputs and outcomes and how much should the Government / tax payers / society, pay. We also need much better information on how much it costs to deliver different courses.
Surely the only viable long-term solution to 50% of the population going to university is a graduate tax. It could also be accompanied by an agreed amount from general taxation to account for the societal benefits of graduates. This could be something like 20% of total funding, and partly be used to reinstate some grants for students from low income households. The lower the threshold the graduate tax is levied at, the lower the marginal tax rate would need to be. It would be far less regressive than the current system where poorer students are forced to borrow more and are more likely to earn less so can't buy themselves out of punitive interest rates like the wealthy so will now pay 9% marginal rate for 40 years. I haven't done the maths but a 2% tax on all graduates levied above the current personal allowance would be a far superior system in my opinion. It would keep wealthy graduates paying into the system for far longer, but not at rates that would make them leave the country to avoid it.