Conservative conference: minister opposes foundation year reforms

Chris Skidmore says Augar review recommendation to cut tuition fees in England would lead to university closures

September 30, 2019
Chris Skidmore

The government response to England’s Augar review is likely to come before Christmas, according to the universities minister, who has come out against the recommendation to defund university foundation years.

Chris Skidmore made the comments at a fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference in Manchester on 30 September, also warning against the review’s plan to lower tuition fees, predicting that this could lead to the closure of universities.

The minister reiterated that he “didn’t agree with everything that was in Augar”, and that he had set out to “campaign against this so-called minimum entry requirement of three Ds” at one stage considered by the panel.

There were “other parts of the report I also disagreed with”, he told the meeting, hosted by MillionPlus and the National Union of Students.

Mr Skidmore said that he “struggle[d] to support” the Augar review’s proposal that students on universities’ foundation year programmes should no longer be eligible for loan funding.

Foundation years were a “uniquely placed opportunity for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, care-leaver backgrounds”, said Mr Skidmore.

“The last thing I want to see is that somehow foundation years are defunded,” he said.

More broadly, the Augar report called for fees to be lowered to £7,500, with full replacement funding to cover the lost income provided by the Treasury – but directed towards subjects with the greatest “social and economic value” or the highest costs of provision. Critics have argued that the Treasury would be unlikely to provide or safeguard the replacement funding.

Mr Skidmore said that “reducing the fee level without being able to deal with mitigating circumstances” would mean a “cut to overall funding and potentially closing universities that are there to provide access to further education and higher education, some of the post-92 universities”.

On the review’s plans to increase further education funding, he said “you can throw as much money as you want at FE”, but the “system is not strong enough at the moment to cope with rapid expansion”. He added: “We need to use university institutions that are already offering FE courses.”

Some believe that Jo Johnson, a vehement critic of Theresa May’s decision to set up the Augar review, may have cemented a position against the review’s fees plan within the new government – led by his brother, Boris Johnson – during his short return to the universities and science brief.

Discussing the Augar review further, Mr Skidmore said: “I guess the official line is that the government is considering the report and we’ll be responding shortly in due course, whatever the phraseology is that is used in Whitehall. It will come this side of Christmas, I’m pretty sure.”

The minister said he had “met with Philip Augar” and “I know he wants it [the report] accepted in a whole package”.

While Mr Skidmore said he was supportive of the review’s calls for more “flexibility” between further and higher education, he said the higher education fee plans could mean “real-terms cuts to universities”, and the “first thing it’s going to hit” would be access and participation for poorer students.

Asked by Times Higher Education if he thought judging universities by their graduate earnings could figure in discussions around sector policy for the next Conservative manifesto, Mr Skidmore said policymakers were “still on a journey in understanding this data”.

Higher education “must also be about the experiential outcome and changing and transforming [graduates’] worldview”, he added.

That “may be seen by some as economically illogical, but it genuinely isn’t”, the minister continued. He argued that “other countries recognise that opportunity that [higher education] provides individuals to enter into the jobs that don’t exist” yet, through providing “resilience” and transferable skills that “you cannot put a price tag on”.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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