The report that universities and colleges have all been waiting for has finally landed. The immediate focus will be on the proposed reduction in the undergraduate tuition fee cap. But, while important and of particular concern to smaller and specialist institutions, it is just one recommendation among many. The lower fee cap was leaked weeks ago and the recommendation is that the funding shortfall should be made up by taxpayers. So the income spent on each student may not necessarily change much – at least on average and to begin with – even if fees do come down.
When the experienced review panel started their work, we at the Higher Education Policy Institute said that their eventual conclusions should be judged in the round against a list of specific criteria – for example, whether they offered more support to part-time students, helped with the living costs of students from poorer backgrounds or were likely to lead to improved alternatives to full university degrees.
The recommendations aim to address these points in sensible ways. There are worked-up and evidence-based proposals on part-time and second-chance students, including a lifetime learning loan allowance. The panel members, quite rightly, propose the return of maintenance grants so that the poorest students no longer have to graduate with the biggest debts. Their report also discusses improving sub-degree (Level 4 and 5) and college provision, so that full honours degrees at traditional universities do not look like the only game in town. It remains unclear, though, whether such changes are likely to prove sufficiently appealing to lure people away from the traditional university experience, which may be more attractive than the panel hope. The idea of removing the real interest rate on student loans while studying is likely to remove a running sore, even though it comes at the cost of a much longer repayment term.
The panel have skilfully avoided some potential elephant traps. They have not recommended an immediate minimum entry standard, such as the much-rumoured 3Ds at A level, but, rather, call on England’s autonomous universities to put their own house in order in terms of student recruitment. They have avoided building big new walls between further and higher education and opted instead for the maintenance of a more fluid post-18 education system. They have also accepted that the residential model of higher education, whereby students move away to study, is so entrenched in England that it cannot easily be reversed. One area that may not turn out to be so sensible is the recommendation to end financial support for nearly all foundation years, and we need to understand a little more about why that is being proposed.
Overall, this is a coherent report that is notably more wide-ranging than the predecessor Browne report of 2010. There is plenty for us to get our teeth into and the further and higher education sectors will want to engage deeply with all the recommendations. We do not know if it will lead to any immediate changes, however, because of the wider political environment into which it lands. The Labour opposition are wedded to an entirely different university funding model, with no fees, and regard the Augar exercise as more partisan than earlier reviews. Meanwhile, contenders for the Tory crown searching for a new domestic agenda could in theory find what they need in the pages of the Augar report, but the electoral saliency of higher education issues is often exaggerated. The jury is out on how much of the report will be swiftly accepted.
Whether or not it lands on fertile soil now, the report is an important and thorough document that is likely to be referred back to for many years to come. Just as we still talk about the Robbins (1963), Dearing (1997) and Browne (2010) reports, we may well come to talk about the Augar report as a watershed moment.
Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.
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