In recent days, the carefully crafted language of the Augar report on the inequity of investment in UK higher and further education has been replaced by a remarkably frank House of Lords Science and Technology Committee evidence session with the report’s main author, Philip Augar. I believe that Augar’s comments bring into question the thoroughness of the review of post-18 education in England and highlight its overly simplistic binary depiction of further education as deserving and higher education as undeserving.
Augar described the post-2012 era of £9,000 fees as being a “windfall” period for English universities, expressing astonishment that any university could be in financial difficulty. Where difficulties exist, he told the peers, “poor management” was squarely to blame.
These comments expose a concerning lack of understanding of how the marketisation of higher education in 2012, as well as other policy changes since then, have impacted universities differentially. That sense is compounded by Augar’s striking admission in the evidence session that the review panel failed to model the impact of its funding recommendations on higher education providers themselves.
In the report, FE and HE are presented as homogenous units, with evidence marshalled selectively to support the contrast. The reader is invited to believe that there has been a premeditated policy to care for the whole of HE while neglecting FE. As a piece of history and analysis, this is sorely lacking, not because it is untrue that the FE sector has been adversely affected by austerity, but because it ignores how a series of government policy changes since 2012 have hit many universities hard.
Indeed, the reforms I am talking about, although obvious enough, are hardly recounted by Augar in his report and are omitted entirely in his evidence to the Lords. One obvious example is the tuition fee changes, which have seen part-time study among mature students decline by 40 per cent. Another example is the unexpected removal of the cap on student numbers in 2015, which prompted a further drift of students to high-prestige institutions at a time when the number of 18-year-olds in the population dropped sharply. That trend was further encouraged by new Department for Education performance measures for schools, which reward them for applications specifically to such institutions.
That same department has also deliberately shifted significant amounts of initial teacher training from universities into schools and academy chains. Then there is the Home Office’s imposition of tighter and stricter policy controls on post-study work visas and the Treasury’s 7 per cent hike in pension costs for academics at modern universities this year.
The net result for some universities has been a perfect storm of cost increases and falling student numbers. This creates real financial challenge: hardly the uniform “golden period” Augar suggested to peers.
Much is made in the Augar report of the stratification between HE and FE, with various recommendations made to resolve this. Yet nothing is mentioned about hierarchies existing within the university sector. It notes, with a degree of nonchalance, that a quarter of English universities are in deficit, but stresses that, in aggregate, the sector is in surplus – as if the good financial position of better-off universities has any relevance to those facing challenges.
As the world’s leading HE researcher, Simon Marginson of the University of Oxford, argues powerfully, we need to close the gap between higher and lower prestige universities if we are to boost social equity in access to HE.
I hope the government will set aside these shortcomings in the Augar report when it looks at what should be implemented. Far better to focus on the recommendations designed to support flexible routes to study, and better financial support for disadvantaged students through the return of grants.
Greg Walker is chief executive of MillionPlus, the association for modern universities.
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