Fear over Augar impact on arts, humanities and social sciences

Critics warn against equating a course’s value with its graduate earnings, of threats to universities’ autonomy on funding decisions and damage to research

June 18, 2019
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England’s Augar review threatens the arts, humanities and social sciences by risking the equation of value with graduate earnings, could harm research in those fields and could replace universities’ autonomy on funding decisions with “Whitehall control”, critics have warned.

Jo Johnson, the former universities minister, has told Times Higher Education of his concerns that the new government funding recommended in the Augar report would be susceptible to a high degree of ministerial control and would not provide “a sustainable stream of money that can sustain the work of university departments doing socially valuable [courses] that perhaps don’t necessarily lead to high levels of earnings over time”.

He added: “I’m really worried about what it [the Augar report] means for creative subjects, for arts subjects, for humanities, what it means for design and technology.”

Under the report’s recommendations, the tuition fee cap would be reduced from £9,250 to £7,500. But critics point to the vagueness of the report’s statements on how to allocate replacement public funding on a course-by-course basis, which potentially leaves some momentous decisions in the hands of the government and the Office for Students.

While the Augar report says the OfS should “consider support” for “socially desirable” courses such as nursing that do not have high graduate earnings, its general close attention to Longitudinal Education Outcomes data on graduate earnings leads some to worry about the impact on disciplines deemed to perform poorly here.

Courses such as art and design or archaeology are higher cost but do not score well on graduate earnings.

James Wilsdon, interim chair of the Campaign for Social Science and professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, said: “There will be a big worry for a lot of social science disciplines that you end up with a very narrow account that only really privileges disciplines, degrees and career paths that contribute in a very immediate and obvious way to a business bottom line or a GDP bottom line.”

Sir Nigel Carrington, vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts London, said the big fears for institutions specialising in creative subjects were that there might be no replacement funding to replace lost fee income, or that backfill funding might not be allocated to these subjects because of their low graduate earnings.

“There isn’t a creative institution in the country that could survive on £7,500 per student,” he warned.

Sir Nigel said: “The worry for all of us is the secretary of state [for education, Damian Hinds] seems to be putting undue weight on the early career earnings of graduates.”

But the LEO data, he added, have “not successfully tracked self-employed and part-time earnings” – particularly common features of employment for graduates who go on to work in the creative industries.

Professor Wilsdon said the key fear was not that the Augar plans would cut funding for lower-cost subjects, because fees in those subjects already cross-subsidised high-cost subjects. But the Augar plans would transfer these local decisions about “how flows of income should operate within the institution” to Whitehall, he argued. This “smacks of a degree of intervention and government control of the real fine detail of institutional management that…would be quite alarming in terms of removing institutional autonomy", he added.

And this would “inevitably reduce cross-subsidies from teaching to research, which is another blind spot of the Augar review”, Professor Wilsdon continued. This was “a worry, particularly in the social sciences, arts and humanities”, where research relies heavily on internal cross-subsidy, he added.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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