Brian Hipkin, CEO and founder of ReFRAME HE Consultancy, gives his forthright view on the recommendations of the long-awaited Augar review
We've all been waiting for it and finally it's arrived. Over 200 pages long with more than 50 recommendations and 465 days in the making - the Augar Review of Post-18 Education and Funding is here at last.
When Theresa May launched the review back in February 2018 it was to be about 'choice, quality and value for money'. In particular its aim was to show how ‘more people [could] have a genuine choice of high quality technical and academic options'. But it has been published into a very different political world.
Brexit has sucked all the oxygen out of any wider policy discussions. Expertise, facts and reasoned argument are not what they were 18 months ago. The review's principle sponsor is weeks away from stepping down as prime minister. The two previous universities ministers have come out against the review's recommendations.
If all this were not enough, parliament is unlikely to find itself able to pass the necessary legislation to lower headline tuition fees from £9,250 to £7,500 as suggested by Augar - and that's if the Treasury can find the £1.5billion extra required in the spending review.
The cut in tuition fees will be made up by government grants, which for the first time in a long time gives the government some nice shiny levers of direct intervention to pull
Augar is a very detailed, evidence and data-led piece of work. In that it can trace its origins back to 2010 and the coalition government's desire to provide more data to parents and potential students on which to make informed choices. Over the past nine years another audience has been considered - taxpayers.
The report envisages taxpayers saving £200 per student per year. These savings come principally from extending the period after which loans are written off from 30 to 40 years, saving some 20% on existing levels of write-off of unpaid debt. The earnings threshold above which graduates have to start to repay their loan will also be cut. The only positive for students is that while studying they'll only pay interest at RPI rather than RPI+.
Even if all of the recommendations relating to higher education are enacted in time to start in 2021, there will be very little immediate impact on universities and students.
The £7,500 fee will start in 2021 and be frozen at that level until 2023, which at first sight does not appear too damaging. However, in the small print the review asks for the existing tuition fee of £9,250 to be frozen until 2021, representing an 11% cut in real terms income. Universities will in effect have their income frozen from now until 2023.
A simple glance into the future may cause those working in careers to be even more aware of the increasingly daunting task ahead
The cut in tuition fees will be made up by government grants, which for the first time in a long time gives the government some nice shiny levers of direct intervention to pull. Augar wants universities to get their act together in a number of areas by 2023. Failure to do so will lead the Office for Students (OfS) to intervene directly.
Figures have been published in the last weeks, as part of the pre-Augar 'softening up', on the perceived poor value of some university-level courses, measured in terms of earnings and employability. With, of course, the creative arts coming at the bottom.
If universities cannot reverse these figures, then the OfS will direct the government's tuition fee top-up away from such courses and/or introduce number caps for specific courses.
Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) and Graduate Outcomes data has now been weaponised and is being used against universities. The fault lines in LEO through which the self-employed and entrepreneurial students disappear makes this data-based 'attack' on the creative arts all the more regrettable. It also ignores the fact that many creative arts courses are studio-based and have self-limiting cohort sizes.
If LEO and other employment longitudinal data is going to be 'front and centre' in an institution's attempt to prove better employability, course retention and earnings levels, then a simple glance into the future may cause those working in careers to be even more aware of the increasingly daunting task ahead of them.
Three years out LEO data for those graduating next month will be available in 2022. You'd better put down the Augar Review and get working on those second years ready for 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of HECSU/Prospects
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