The Augar report on higher education has a sting in its tail | Jonathan Wolff

The proposals are significantly regressive, increasing total payments made by lower earners, such as teachers and nurses

As Sir Humphrey would have said, taking on the job of reviewing post-18 education, and especially its funding, is a courageous decision. The system is so grim, and the possibilities for significant change so limited, that even those who benefit from changes will complain that not enough has been done, while those who expect to lose will not hold back their anguish.

Nevertheless, the man who agreed to serve when called, the banker Philip Augar, assisted by a highly eminent and respected team, has finally reported. Pencils, nay swords, had been sharpened in advance, for we knew that hope must be abandoned by all who entered here.

Still, the report does contain much careful and perceptive analysis, though the problems that need addressing are plain to see. One, with which the report begins, is the undoubted gap in provision between those who go to university and those who pursue other studies. In this respect, the message of the report seems to be that, instead of abolishing the grammar school system, we’ve merely delayed it to the age of 18. And the resources go, largely, to those who continue to swim in the upper stream.

A second problem is the expanding burden of student debt. For those who leave university owing £50,000 or more, with an interest rate of 6%, the cumulative effect can be eye-watering.

And then there is that frightful beast that stalks the hills and dales but is more looked for than found: the Mickey Mouse degree. Here it is defined as one that has poor retention, poor graduate employment, and low earnings. Not good, but shouldn’t the higher education free market have rooted them out already? If not, perhaps they are valued for other reasons, such as, I don’t know, the education they provide?

This populist concession aside, improving the quality of non-degree provision and reducing student debt are surely to be welcomed. But what matters are not the aspirations but the concrete proposals for change.

The most eye-catching recommendations of the report concern student fees, to be renamed the student contribution. It is recommended that fees will be cut from £9,250 to £7,500. Total debt will be capped at 1.2 times the original capital, in real terms – an imaginative move. But, like the equally welcome recommendation for the reintroduction of £3,000 maintenance grants for students from lower income households, it will cost. The fear is that it will come by sucking money out of the universities. But no! The report recommends that that the government pays. The cabinet’s eyes may glaze over at that section.

In any case, universities are expected to make “efficiency gains”. Meaning what? More attempts to recruit high-fee international students, and reduced spending: freezing of posts; redundancies; smaller annual wage rises; increased casualisation of teaching; and cutting student support services. And exactly at the time the UCU has elected a new general secretary, Jo Grady, determined to see spending going in the other direction.

And on the repayment of the debt (sorry, the making of the contribution) there’s a sting in the tail. It is recommended that the repayment period is extended to 40 years, rather than the current 30, before the debt is written off. This is ghastly. Previously, lower earners could look forward to some relief before retirement, but no longer. The proposals are significantly regressive, increasing total payments made by lower earners, such as teachers and nurses, while providing relief for those on higher incomes. It is hard to see a government accepting this idea if it wishes to retain any credibility, and the remaining recommendations leave a funding hole.

But where can the costs fall in a fairer system? The report reminds us that governments have been keen for universities to meet the needs of business. Yet if business demands something, shouldn’t it pay? And indeed, the Augar report starts with the principle that part of the cost of post-18 education should fall on employers. But, in relation to the universities, it seems to have forgotten this in writing the recommendations. We need to turn up that dial. After all, isn’t it the captains of industry who have so eloquently warned us against the “something for nothing” generation?


Jonathan Wolff

The GuardianTramp

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