The Augar review into post-18 education and funding, commissioned by Theresa May last year, was released on 30 May.
As yet the government says only that it will “take very seriously the report’s proposals”. The report presents its aim as a more “accessible” system of higher and further education that provides “value for money” for both students and taxpayers and is more responsive to labour market demands.
University student numbers have continued to increase steadily since 2009-10, but there has been a sharp decline in students choosing higher-level technical qualifications (Level 4 and 5, including foundation degrees and higher education diplomas) and in mature and part-time applicants at all levels. The report calls for stronger technical vocational education in further education to meet these skills shortages and a bearing down on “low-value” degrees to address an “oversupply” of graduates in subjects which do not promote employability, such as the arts and humanities.
In higher education, it recommends the lowering of tuition fees from £9,000 to £7,500 per year, plus the reintroduction of maintenance grants for low-income students. Universities will be incentivised to increase provision of “high cost” and “high value” subjects “better aligned with the economy’s needs” which provide greater “value for money” for students and taxpayers.
University bosses have come out against the recommendations, with Sussex University’s Vice Chancellor saying it will “push universities into survival mode.” Cuts have already begun, partly in anticipation of the Augar review’s proposals, alongside increased staff pension costs and uncertainty over international student numbers driven by Brexit.
Staff and students at Surrey University overwhelmingly voted no confidence in university management in May due to a proposed 300 job losses and course cuts. Students at the Guildford School of Acting (part of the university) went into occupation in late May to protest the closure of two degree courses last week.
The report calls for £1 billion to be invested into further education, cuts in adult skills provision to be reversed, and “life-long learning loan allowances” to be introduced to encourage part time, flexible and later-life learning. Fixed at £30,000, or four years’ full time undergraduate degree funding, the loan allowance will be available for all over 18s without a publicly funded degree to enrol on higher technical or degree level studies at any stage in their life and, if they wish, piecemeal in stand-alone modules.
The further education college network should be “rationalised” to even out the supply and quality of provision across areas with the aim of creating a “genuinely national system of higher technical education”. Previous college mergers have led to huge job losses and course closures: it is likely that this “rationalisation” will mean the same.
The report wants the student loans system to be renamed the “student contributions system” as part of measures to increase the amount of loans repaid in full. Fees may be reduced, but the wage threshold above which graduates start paying back their loans should be set lower, and repayments should continue for 40 rather than 30 years.
National Union of Students (NUS) President Shakira Martin says that while NUS disagrees with the concept of “low value” and “high value” courses, the proposals make “a number of steps in the right direction” towards free education.
In a literal sense £7,500 fees are closer to zero than £9,000, but the changes to student loan repayments will mean only the wealthiest students will end up paying less. Those who earn less will pay more as interest accrues. The reintroduction of maintenance grants, increased access, and funding for lifelong learning are important and good. But the Augar review preserves the logic of a marketised education system shaped around the interests of business and employers, not students, society and learning. It also ignores the reality that graduate earnings have as much to do with class backgrounds as with the discipline studied. The report is not clear on reintroduction of funding for lower level courses, for example in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and adult skills.
The student left must campaign inside and outside NUS and link up with UCU, to resist the regressive changes and to fight for free education funded by taxing the rich, with living grants for all, a living wage for apprentices, lower rents, and an end to marketisation.