Response to Augar ‘will not resolve HE tensions’ in Covid era

Delayed government verdict on post-18 education review seen as unlikely to address concerns on rising system costs or HE economic role

January 14, 2021
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Another delay in the Westminster government’s response to the Augar review leaves the whole exercise looking increasingly outmoded in the Covid era because it is unlikely to address major issues around the rising cost of student loans and the economic role of universities, according to sector figures.

The government response to the review of post-18 education in England was at one stage scheduled for publication alongside a skills White Paper on 5 January, sources suggested, before being shelved as the government announced a third lockdown.

The Augar review panel, set up by Theresa May when she was prime minister, published its report in May 2019, which was billed as heralding a major rebalancing from higher to further education. But the Boris Johnson government is yet to publish its response.

There was widespread expectation that the government would not support the review’s headline recommendation on higher education – to lower tuition fees to £7,500 – and would focus on its further education recommendations.

But as the Covid crisis inflicts deep damage on jobs and wages, particularly for young people, graduate repayments into the student loans system will be hit and the government’s level of subsidy will rise further.

Some in the sector argue that the government’s Augar response can only ever be an interim statement on higher education funding, with the fundamental issues around the costs of the loan system not to be resolved until a full multi-year spending review.

Meanwhile, Diana Beech, a former policy adviser to Conservative universities ministers who is now chief executive of London Higher, said that as demand for higher education rose, the Treasury would be focused on “the headline figures on student numbers and the RAB charge [the government write-off on student loans], which is rising”.

This “sadly heightens the risk of the reintroduction of student number controls”, she said. “Siphoning people away from higher education…does seem a more attractive prospect [for the Treasury], at least on the balance sheet.”

Dr Beech added that she “wouldn’t be surprised if the government offers an incentive to lure applicants towards courses they see as being more favourable [on graduate earnings]…for things like STEM careers, or applied vocational courses”.

She continued: “Looking back, the Augar review really does concentrate on the pipeline – people who have done their A levels, BTECs – coming into HE; it doesn’t really consider those who want to upskill, reskill – not in the way we need it to right now, with industries decimated [and workers] looking for that quick fix to get them into another career.”

Gordon McKenzie, chief executive of GuildHE and a former senior higher education civil servant, said that while “fundamental problems” on skills examined by Augar remained relevant, “with the impact of Covid, worrying about whether those who do already progress [into post-18 education] do so via FE, HE or apprenticeships seems close to pointless”.

Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, said universities remained in the government “firing line” both in the perception that higher education is “too big” and in cultural antipathy to them as liberal institutions.

The Treasury has “less truck with the vindictive stuff and, largely, sees the benefits of human capital, research, science and other supply-side investment to support recovery as well as long-term ambitions to improve productivity”, Professor Westwood said. “But [the Treasury] will be less relaxed about some aspects of loan write-off, RAB,” he added.

He continued: “In all, I don’t think the government is very much closer to resolving these tensions and issues than it was when it won the 2019 election. It isn’t much closer to deciding what it really wants from universities and colleges and how that might drive recovery, levelling-up and a post-Brexit economic strategy.”

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