Theresa May’s plan to stand down before the next phase of Brexit negotiations could affect prospects for her review of post-18 education in England – but some think it could yet be published before she leaves office in order to cement its agenda.
Ms May personally announced the review in her October 2017 Conservative Party conference speech, and she removed Justine Greening and Jo Johnson from their posts as education secretary and universities minister, respectively, after they opposed it. Scepticism about the review remains strong in quarters of the Department for Education.
The report from the review’s independent panel, led by Philip Augar, is expected to recommend lowering the tuition fee cap from £9,250 and shifting funding away from universities to further education colleges.
The publication of the panel’s report has been delayed repeatedly – most recently while the whole of government wrestles with the Brexit crisis.
One former government adviser said: “Clearly the review is something the PM and some of her advisers at No 10 are very personally invested in. It’s quite possible a lot of the people who might be the next PM are not so invested in the idea that we need to shift resources from higher education to further education or that there’s such a political imperative to cut the fee cap.”
But, the former adviser continued, “on the other hand if the Augar review is published while Theresa May is still prime minister, one thing that’s very likely to happen is No 10 will quickly make its own response…potentially without reference to the DfE or HM Treasury.”
If there were recommendations to lower the fee cap or transfer resources from higher education to further education, No 10 “might immediately endorse that even before there’s been a formal government response”, the former adviser suggested.
They added: “If that happens, I think it’s very difficult for a Conservative government in the future to fully row back even if the prime minister is differently minded.”
Julian Gravatt, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said that although the review was initiated under Ms May, “there is cross-party and cross-departmental interest in the outcome, including at the Treasury as they’re increasingly looking into value for money, especially in light of the recent [Office for National Statistics] decision on loans” – which will reclassify a portion of student loan outlay as public spending, adding about £12 billion to the deficit.
“I’m sure they will continue to be interested in the costings exercise [on costs of provision across different subjects] Augar has undertaken as part of his review, as well as officials at the Department for Education who we expect to publish and implement it,” continued Mr Gravatt. “We will certainly be continuing to push them to.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said it was “hard to imagine a scenario in which the prime minister leaving office doesn’t impact to some degree on Augar. The review is much more linked to her personally than earlier reviews – like Dearing and Browne – were linked to any single politician.
“I still think…that the review will be published, but the timing and eventual response are likely to be affected.”