Government response to Augar still expected with spending review

English sector awaits details of rebalancing towards further education, along with HE policy statement and campus free speech bill

November 12, 2020
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The Westminster government is tipped to publish its further education White Paper, including its response to the Augar review, in the next month – although others point to factors that could delay that move and legislation targeting students’ unions over free speech.

The government’s decision to abbreviate the planned three-year spending review, which sets departmental budgets, to a one-year exercise had raised questions over whether the further education White Paper would still go ahead alongside it, as originally planned.

The White Paper, which will include the long-delayed government response to the Augar review of post-18 education, is expected to be accompanied by a higher education policy statement. As a package, this would begin implementing ministers’ intentions to mount a rebalancing away from universities towards further education colleges.

There is also the bill prepared by the Department for Education on campus free speech, which is expected to extend statutory free speech duties – already imposed on those who run universities – to students’ unions and put them under threat of fines.

Some in the sector still expect the further education White Paper and the higher education policy statement to come around the time of the spending review, scheduled for 25 November.

Others suggest that the higher education policy statement – expected to repeat rhetoric against university expansion – could come in the new year.

Some question whether the government would have the appetite for confrontation with universities at a time when they have an important role to play in reducing the spread of Covid-19 on campuses.

The free speech legislation targeting students’ unions might be viewed as particularly problematic at a time when they have an important role in supporting students during the pandemic.

On the other hand, the government may be keen to push ahead to show that it has a non-Covid domestic agenda and, in particular, to deliver a programme on further education that it believes will appeal to new Conservative voters in the deindustrialised northern and Midlands towns that won the party the general election last year.

The free speech legislation is also viewed as hugely important by some in government who see a “culture wars” approach as potentially central to the Conservatives’ bid to win another majority at the next election.

There is a sense for many in government that the Conservatives are hated in universities – a sense deepened by Brexit divisions – with the withdrawal of a speaking invitation to former home secretary Amber Rudd by an Oxford student society having caused particular anger, some suggest.

The Conservatives have conducted polling that indicates public support for their proposed approach of targeting students’ unions on free speech via legislation, it is also said.

On the broader agenda around the further education White Paper, Gordon McKenzie, chief executive of GuildHE and a former senior civil servant responsible for higher education, said it was “right that FE should be funded properly and given a clear role in post-18 education” and that “we need far more people getting skills at level 4 and above”.

But in terms of the rest of the response to Augar, Mr McKenzie said he hoped the government would recognise that universities “already do high-level technical and professional education and do it well. Build on that. Recognise that you need HE and FE to make this work. Give us all some policy stability. And don’t think you can fix this from the centre.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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