Measly recommendations will not cure HE funding’s political sickness

With the consultation now closed, Philip Augar’s review of English post-18 education must begin the hard work of devising substantial but cost-effective proposals, says Andy Westwood 

May 17, 2018
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With the consultation period for the review of post-18 education and funding in England having closed earlier this month, the serious work now begins for Philip Augar and his advisory panel colleagues. A programme of consultation sessions and visits is under way and Augar, a former City financier, promises transparency and receptiveness during what is a relatively short process; he expects to be largely finished by November.

Theresa May will be pleased that the review has got off the ground at all. It might have already been concluded if not for several months of obstruction after the 2017 general election – which ultimately led to ministerial sackings.

For the prime minister, the biggest issues have always been a mix of brute politics and policy. As Katie Perrior, her former director of communication, said recently, there is no point having a review if it only offers students something disappointingly “measly”. May and the No 10 press machine have certainly stoked expectations, so it is unlikely that clever technical solutions will be enough.

Jeremy Corbyn’s “youthquake” might not have been the story of the general election after all, but May will have more than just the young in her sights. She will want the higher education system to feel fairer to parents and grandparents, too: less obviously based on questionable graduate outcomes and high levels of borrowing. She will also want to avoid further unforced errors, such as the automatic rise in interest on repayments, based on the retail price index. This took the rate to what The Times called the “eye-wateringly high” figure of 6.3 per cent in April.

As Augar ventured out on to the conference circuit, he reminded us that his review is not just about university fees. There is “room to improve coherence” across the whole of tertiary education. It would take a lot of thinking to construct anything resembling a system, but while this is long overdue, it would be unlikely to fully meet either popular or political expectations. Such sensible reforms will have to take a back seat to the politics.

And the political imperatives keep stacking up. The first is the simplest and also the most vague: the sense that “something needs to be done”. But no one quite knows what. The second is to define and achieve a sense of value for money across the sector, particularly in higher education. This has been a priority for successive ministers, consciously driving student “consumers” to demand to know where their “money” goes. Having set this hare running, it is going to be tough to stop it – especially when the majority of undergraduates are “paying” higher fees than their courses cost to deliver. In that context, it may never be possible to reconcile current fee levels with a narrow transactional definition of what students get for their money.

The recent campaigns in the popular press to “save” the Open University make doing so a third challenge that the review must tackle. But while the campaigns are a rare but welcome focus on the sorry plight of part-time learners after recent fee reforms, making sensible recommendations won’t be easy. The review team must first decide whether the former universities minister and architect of the 2012 fees reforms, David Willetts, is right that this and other aspects of the system can be fixed while leaving its main features largely intact. The alternative view is that it is the market for young, full-time undergraduates paying high fees that is the primary cause of decline and low participation elsewhere.

It is worth bearing in mind that neither the Robbins nor the Dearing nor the Browne reports were fully accepted by government. The big-picture politics will still come down to the politicians – and this must include chancellor Philip Hammond.

The panel is required to make recommendations “consistent with the government’s fiscal priorities to reduce the deficit”. However, as aptly demonstrated by the recent raising of the salary threshold for student loan repayment to £25,000, if Augar and his ministerial masters are able to deliver political solutions as well as technical policy detail, then money will be found.

If they fail, “measly” recommendations will also come with significant political costs. Theresa May pays either way.

Andy Westwood is professor of government practice at the University of Manchester and a former special adviser.

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