The Augar review into post-18 educational funding in England is a political review that will have to offer the government policies that have electoral appeal. But it is also a critical opportunity to ensure that the widest range of students can develop the right skills to address both the immediate post-Brexit challenges and the rise of technology and artificial intelligence.
In response to that last point, people will need to update their skills across their working lives, so it makes sense to have a more flexible and joined-up approach to higher and further education. But post-18 education cannot be improved without taking account of how pre-18 education sifts young people. For instance, if T levels, the new technical alternative to A levels, are used to categorise young people according to a flawed distinction between “technical” and “academic”, their options will be constrained by the time they turn 18.
In reality, these streams of activity overlap. There is no undertaking at the same time more technical and academic (not to mention vocational) than medicine. But because it is studied at a “high” level, it is accepted that universities should teach it. This is the crucial point that the review should grasp: the difference between higher and further education is the level of study, not the content.
Equally, the review should not agonise over where education occurs. We need more people with pre-degree qualifications. We also need more graduates. Universities will not be the best places to deliver higher-level qualifications for everyone; contrariwise, they may be the right places for some to do pre-degree qualifications: indeed, this is already happening. The key point for the review is to improve access to all of these different levels of education.
It has been suggested that people with fewer than three Ds at A level should not be entitled to financial support through the Student Loans Company. If this is one of Augar’s recommendations, we will want to see the evidence that the young people affected lack the capacity to benefit from university. I have had many conversations with University of Portsmouth graduates who believe that their lives were transformed by their experience, but who came to us with low prior attainment.
Some politicians think that increasing the number of people who don’t go to university will somehow improve the educational opportunities of that group of people. But it is not clear how reducing the opportunities of some of the 50 per cent who currently benefit from a university education will help those who get a raw deal. The review must focus more directly and realistically on improving the options of those not currently in higher education, and then let all young people decide which options suit them best.
Nor should that choice be made for young people by bureaucrats, however well-intentioned their concern to promote the “national interest”. The UK has never been very good at manpower planning, and I don’t believe our crystal ball-gazing has improved.
Remember that universities were mocked for developing degrees in games technology and virtual reality. Yet it is these areas of the economy that have enjoyed the greatest growth in recent years. The UK is now a world leader. A manpower planning-based approach within Augar’s recommendations will doom them to irrelevance within six months.
The review’s political imperative was England’s headline tuition fee – which the Labour Party pledged to abolish entirely in the last general election campaign. There is clearly a problem with public perception in this area. The public subsidy is not clear; it exists only as a write-off of unpaid “debt”. The Office for National Statistics’ recent reclassification of some loan funding as public spending may help to address this problem.
But whether it does or not, it would be foolish for the review to overreact and, in an attempt to give the prime minister the report she wants, recommend university funding cuts. This would threaten the existence of some of the very institutions on which the country’s long-term future depends. Many of the most vulnerable institutions are located in “left behind” areas that rely disproportionately on the social, cultural and economic role of their university: losing that institution could have serious consequences.
We live in difficult political times, and Philip Augar must certainly be sensitive to them. But if his review responds too closely to politicians’ current whims, then, whatever its short-term political dividend, we will be looking at precisely the same issues in a few years’ time.
Or worse, when future historians look for pivotal moments in the trajectory of the UK during the early 21st century, their focus on 2019 will not be confined to Brexit.
Graham Galbraith is vice-chancellor of the University of Portsmouth.