Ministers ‘rebalance’ teaching grant in ‘interim’ Augar response

‘Final conclusion’ to review of post-18 education to come at spending review, as DfE heralds skills white paper, TEF review and admissions consultation

January 21, 2021

The Westminster government was today due to publish its interim response to the Augar review detailing “immediate plans to rebalance technical and academic education” in England, plus “future reforms” to the teaching grant, with the “final conclusion” coming at the next spending review.

The government will also publish a Skills for Jobs White Paper, described as part of the effort to “build back better” in the wake of the pandemic, that it says will “revolutionise post-16 education” by putting employers “at the heart of the skills system” and “put an end to the illusion that a degree is the only route to success”.

In a glut of policy papers with bearing on the future of English higher education, the white paper, the response to the Augar review of post-18 education, a letter from education secretary Gavin Williamson to the Office for Students, the independent review of the teaching excellence framework and the government’s response, plus a consultation on post-qualification admissions, were all due to be published on 21 January.

The Department for Education chose to send out its press release on the skills white paper and Augar response without making full documents available. That could be aimed at ensuring the government’s messages are given an airing in the media before full analysis of the documents can take place.

The DfE press release offered scant details on the Augar response. “The interim response details immediate plans to rebalance technical and academic education and future reforms with the higher education teaching grant,” it says. “The final conclusion to the post-18 review will be set out at the next comprehensive spending review.”

There is no mention of the Augar review’s biggest recommendation on higher education, which was to lower tuition fees to £7,500.

Sector sources indicated to Times Higher Education that Mr Williamson’s letter to the OfS would outline further restriction of the remaining teaching grant to “strategically important subjects”, while turning the small amount of remaining capital funding on the teaching side into a biddable pot open to such subjects.

The letter, sources suggested, will also detail a move to restrict the remaining small amount of teaching grant for creative arts as an intermediate cost subject, so that it is only available to small and specialist providers.

The Augar review process has been a long one. Then prime minister Theresa May first announced a major review of higher education funding in October 2017, with the Augar panel reporting in May 2019.

The earliest opportunity to hold a comprehensive spending review would be autumn 2021, meaning the Augar review will have spanned at least four years.

Ms May initiated the review because of her concerns about the perceived popularity of Labour’s pledge to abolish fees at the 2017 election. But the review eventually became centred on achieving a “rebalancing” from higher education to further education.

The skills white paper involves the lifetime skills guarantee previously announced by the prime minister, Boris Johnson, which will “offer tens of thousands of adults the opportunity to retrain in later life, helping them to gain in-demand skills and open up further job opportunities”.

In his initial speech on the lifetime skills guarantee, Mr Johnson said that  it would give further education students the same access to funding as higher education students, which he said would end “the bias that propels young people into universities and away from technical education”. There are no details on eligibility for the loans in the DfE press release.

The white paper’s plans “will put an end to the illusion that a degree is the only route to success and a good job, and that further and technical education is the second-class option”, says the DfE. “Instead, they will supercharge further and technical education, realigning the whole system around the needs of employers, so that people are trained for the skills gaps that exist now, and in the future, in sectors the economy needs, including construction, digital, clean energy and manufacturing.”

There will be a change in the law “so that from 2025 people can access flexible student finance so they can train and retrain throughout their lives, supported by funding in 2021-22 to test ways to boost access to more modular and flexible learning”, the DfE says.

The plans also involve “overhauling the funding and accountability rules, so funding is better targeted at supporting high quality education and training that meets the needs of employers”, the DfE says.

The drive to “rebalance” post-18 education towards further education and away from higher education is partly driven by politics. With the Conservative government having won the election in traditionally Labour town seats in the English North and Midlands, it is prioritising non-graduate voters to a greater extent than previously.

Mr Johnson said: “In the years ahead, the reforms we have announced today will deliver high quality technical education across the country – and help people retrain and secure better paid jobs.

“That way when we have beaten Covid-19 we can put rocket boosters under our recovery and Build Back Better.”

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said the plans would ensure “all technical education and training is based on what employers want and need, whilst providing individuals with the training they need to get a well-paid and secure job, no matter where they live, and in the sectors that are critical to our future economic success”.

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